The New Jersey Politics of the Texas Atrocity

Malinowski, right, and Kean.

The United States has experienced yet another mass shooting, this time in a town in Texas where an 18-year-old took a gun, murdered his grandmother, and then went on a shooting spree in an elementary school in his hometown of Uvalde.  The spree left 19 children and 2 adults dead.  The alleged shooter is also dead.

This massacre marks the bloodiest school schooling since Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a decade ago.  That incident left 28 dead and 2 injured, the shooter having killed his own mother and then himself.

The “politicization” which followed the Uvalde shooting was inevitable and predictably formulaic.  In the wake of the shooting, President Joe Biden and other elected officials expressed their grief with the Texan families, and also called for governmental action to control gun violence.  Almost immediately, right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson said the president was “dividing the country in a moment of pain” and repeating Democrat talking points.  Carlson blasted Biden, saying, “Partisan politics being the only thing that animates him, [he is] unfit for leadership of this country.”

Biden’s crime was in calling for something to be done about shootings rather than waiting for some period of time to pass first.

The tragedy, coming on the heels of the Buffalo, NY, shooting just a week before, has electrified calls in the Democratic party for more gun and gun-violence related legislation.

Governor Phil Murphy announced that, while there was no immediate credible threat to any NJ school, he ordered the NJ State Troopers and County Prosecutors to provide additional law enforcement protection to schools.

Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin said that “nothing about this is normal,” and added that NJ law enforcement would do all they could to protect the Garden State’s students, teachers, and staff.

The incident comes at a time when the Supreme Court is potentially going to throw ideological victories to the Republican Party with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and rule on a challenge to New York’s concealed carry laws.

As of the time of this writing, former Republican State Senator Tom Kean, Jr., the presumed front-runner in the race to challenge Congressman Tom Malinowski, had yet to issue any statement in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting.

Other New Jerseyans, such as Democratic Congressman Donald Payne, promptly released statements, calling for action.  “We have passed bills in the House to conduct better background checks.  We are ready to prevent terrorists and criminals from getting guns and murdering innocent Americans,” Payne said.  “Yet, the Senate does nothing and legislatures around the country do nothing.  We are still mourning the victims of the horrific and racist mass shooting in a Buffalo, NY supermarket last week.  I don’t know what else has to happen for people, and especially Republican elected representatives, to realize that gun violence and domestic terrorism is a serious threat to the safety and stability of our country.  We must take this threat seriously and do everything we can to protect all Americans.”

Straight to the point, Congressman Donald Norcross spoke at a Cherry Hill town hall, saying that the Republican responses to mass shootings are “bullshit.”

“You gotta say, ‘What the is going on?’ It’s absolutely remarkable what’s going on in our nation and somehow, we can’t do anything about it,” Norcross said.

The congressman cited that their hands were tied even to collect data on mass shootings because of partisan politics.  “Well, let me tell you, we aren’t even allowed to study it because of laws that were put in place prior to many of us being able to change that. So, gee, go study the issue. But somehow it’s: put your head in the sand and say, ‘We just can’t do it, it’s just people.’ Well, I don’t buy that bullshit, excuse me, I don’t buy it at all.”

Norcross further said that he had been a hunter and that automatic weapons have no sporting value.

Governor Murphy has already enacted tighter gun control restrictions in New Jersey during his tenure as chief executive, but wants to roll out yet another package of legislation.  Republicans have repeatedly said that these laws only impact the law-abiding and do not stop criminals who are already intent on breaking the law.

The grim political reality is that mass shootings do not generally have much impact on American politics, state or federal.  The internet explodes in rage, demonstrations take place, and then after a while nothing happens.  Community-oriented organizations, typically urban, will continue to campaign as they always have, but the political attention to gun violence rises and falls cyclically.  Both sides of the aisle are relieved when the matter can be swept under the rug because it prevents them from having to act on an extremely charged and contentious matter culturally, legally, and from lobbying.  Unfortunately for the country and to the political establishment itself, mass shootings are so common in the United States that as soon as interest fades out, it is fanned to life once more as more people are buried while thoughts and prayers are offered from the usual quarters.

If looking at the Columbine shooting in 1999 to today, gun control on the federal level has not significantly changed, although states have exercised greater power.  New Jersey already has among the most restrictive gun control laws in the United States, a point Murphy is proud of.

It is true that New Jersey has less gun violence than other states like Texas.  GVPedia Gun Violence Research, defines a mass shooting in which four or more people are shot, excluding the shooter.  The Giffords Law Center has given New Jersey an “A Rating” on having strong state gun laws.  The GVR study said, “Since 2013, the number of annual mass shootings nationwide jumped by 65%.In states with strong laws, mass shooting incidents increased by 33% and fatalities by 26%, but in states with weak laws, mass shootings increased by a staggering 91% and fatalities by 92%. States with weak laws experienced 63% more mass shootings with an assault weapon.”

Their study reported, “New Jersey suffered 66 mass shootings between 2013-2019, resulting in 49 deaths and 269 injuries.”  The same study noted Texas had an “F Rating” and “Texas suffered 144 mass shootings between 2013-2019, resulting in 292 deaths and 598 injuries.”

The CDC reported New Jersey had 420 gun deaths in 2018 from homicides and suicides.  Texas, in the same year, had 3,522 gun deaths from homicides and suicides.

“Why doesn’t somebody do something?” is a familiar strain in times of crisis.

Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones blasted the Republican Party in a statement, going so far as to apparently blame them for the shooting itself.  “Make no mistake,” Jones said, “these deaths are the result of a Republican Party that remains beholden to the NRA and the gun industry.  Despite a majority of Americans supporting stricter gun laws, the Republican Party continues to pander to the gun lobby in return for campaign cash. And while they dance to the NRA’s tune, mass shootings continue to be carried out with the exact kind of assault weapon that no one has any business owning outside of a military or law enforcement role… When will enough be enough for Republicans to finally join Democrats and act to save the lives of our children and our people?”

Since New Jersey has thankfully been spared a tragedy on the order of Uvalde thus far, it is unlikely that there will be much political consequence in Trenton beyond what is already stated.  New Jersey’s strict gun law advocates, however, may use this opportunity to shift their focus on the national level and, especially if the rumors of Governor Murphy having federal-level ambitions are true, he could use the opportunity to make New Jersey a strong voice in the national discussion.  In the congressional races, these messages either for or against new gun legislation or policies would potentially have the greatest impact.  It would behoove the likes of media-shy Kean, therefore, to publicly announce their thoughts and feelings on the issue in practical terms, not just in generalities, to assure their bases of support and inform their broader constituencies, or potential constituencies.

As Kean seats to beat the incumbent, Congressman Malinowski released a statement of his own.  In it, he declared that, “This tragedy was preventable. There are commonsense gun laws that have been proven to work in New Jersey, but that we have chosen not to enact for the nation as a whole. We must now make the decision to save the lives of our children, teachers, worshipers, grocery store shoppers and loved ones.”

Malinowski took a cue from his own state of New Jersey to project potential Garden State solutions to this national problem.  Among those he mentioned were House Resolutions which would require background checks for every gun sale or transfer, something recently made into New Jersey law; reinstituting the assault weapons ban that was signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton and expired in 2004; close the “Charleston Loophole” which lets firearms sales go ahead if the background check isn’t completed in three business days; require safe storage of firearms for those households which have children or a mentally ill person in the home; federally raise the age of purchasing a semi-automatic weapon (one trigger pull, one shot fired) to those 21 and over; prevent those who are stalkers and domestic abusers from being able to legally access guns; and perhaps the subject which invites the most controversy, the “Red Flag Law” that allows police to confiscate someone’s firearms with a court order if the person is at risk of harming themselves or other people.

New Jersey Republican radio host Bill Spadea, a CD-12 candidate for congress in 2004 and Chairman of the College Republican National Committee in the 90s, had condemned the Democrats’ response immediately after the tragedy, accusing them of political opportunism and exploiting the moment. “Within hours of learning about the horrific murder of innocents at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, NJ politicians took to Twitter to make a political point. Even for New Jersey Democrats this was a new low.”

Rebutting against the slew of calls for gun control from the left, he said what some candidates have yet to put into print.  “Given the fact that the killer broke many federal and state laws already in place, the question is where’s the discussion about mental health, spending tax dollars to ‘harden’ these soft targets and empowering legal gun owners? All lost in a desperate attempt for desperate, out-of-touch Democrats to rally their radical base to overcome bad poll numbers.  Sickening.”

Spadea, for his part, offered his own approach to reducing gun violence.  Four points he made were to enhance mental health care and report those “who are unfit so they pop up on a background check.”  He also called for increasing school security, allowing licensed and trained individuals to carry a weapon wherever they may be, stating that concealed carrying citizens are less likely to violate gun laws than police officers; and lastly to “speak to your kids as adults” to promote situational awareness and a respect for firearms.

Whether or not these ideas from the right or the left will manifest in passed pieces of legislation, or if they will be forgotten in committees, depends on the inclinations of the nation’s lawmakers, reflective of the attitudes of their constituents.  Nevertheless, lawmakers have a responsibility—at the absolute minimum—to elucidate ideas and their positions on matters of such consequence.

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