State Senator Holly Schepisi, one of north Jersey’s most prominent Republican figures, occupies a number of positions lending her a voice on the gun control discussion which is not often considered from the conventional Right: that of a working mother and also a survivor of violent crime.
The River Vale-based attorney spoke with Insider NJ following the ongoing debate on firearms policy. On the federal level, a bipartisan deal seems to be creeping closer to fruition, one which brings a few minor but nevertheless significant new policies with respect to guns. The movement, however glacial, is pressed by widespread popular clamoring for “something to be done” about the nation’s gun crime catastrophe, where mass shootings are a near-daily occurrence and only the most abhorrent in terms of numbers of lives lost make national news.
The phenomenon is one which puts the United States far and away at the forefront of developed nations, including among countries which have relatively widespread civilian gun ownership. When asked if the epidemic of mass shootings was, in fact, a uniquely American issue, Schepisi agreed. “I think if you look around the world, unfortunately, it is.” For Schepisi, however, there was no one single root cause. “Can we attribute it to anything in particular? Is it accessibility or availability of certain firearms? Is it what kids watch and see? Is it a blend of mental health issues combined? I think more resources need to be put into studying the issue to do a comprehensive approach as to what would help stop these massive incidents that are so devastating to everyone.”
On the federal level, because of the Dickey Amendment of the 1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was technically allowed to study gun violence, but could not use any funding for what might be considered advocating or promoting gun control. Afraid of risking liability, the CDC avoided the subject entirely and no meaningful research was undertaken until Congress changed the rules in 2019. The CDC and National Institute of Health can now look into the issue of firearm safety, albeit on a small budget.
Closer to home in New Jersey, Rutgers University is host to the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center, among the first state-funded institutions to conduct research on gun violence. The Center works hand-in-hand with the New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. Among the GVRC’s stated objectives are looking at the community, individual, and societal consequences of gun violence as well as promoting “the responsible ownership and use of guns.”
The Garden State has its share of gun violence, although New Jersey has been spared some of the brutal, large-scale mass shootings as seen in other states. Schepisi believes that residents should not think New Jersey is immune, but rather has a different kind of gun violence problem. “I think there are multiple levels of types of gun violence that have to be addressed in different ways. When you look at Newark, or Camden, or some of the inner-city areas in which gangs are much more prevalent, that’s a different type of gun violence impacting a large youth population in those communities. I think sometimes we discount that, because hearing the story of somebody walking into a school and slaughtering 19 children is a much different story than 19 youth gang members in Newark being killed over a one-month period. I think we do a disservice to not look at that and try to understand what we can do better to prevent that.”
As far as mass shooters themselves are concerned, most of whom tend to be younger, the senator’s head spins. “As a mom, I can’t even fathom a situation where you have a child who is a teenager, or in their early 20s, who are so broken that this is something that is viewed to be their only way out. I personally can’t begin to understand how somebody gets to that frame of mind.”
She also acknowledged that New Jersey has some of the strictest gun laws in the United States. She further acknowledged that there is no one-size-fits-all solution possible. “Do I believe that [NJ gun laws] help with respect to preventing some of the incidents that we have seen in other areas? Yes. Has it helped prevent some of the gun violence in our inner cities? No. I think these are issues and problems that must be addressed in different ways depending upon where you are in this country.”
The Giffords Law Center ranks New Jersey as #2 in the nation for tight gun laws, trailing only behind California. Arkansas is rated #50. According to Giffords, New Jersey sees 5 gun-deaths per 100,000 people, whereas Arkansas suffers 22.6. Across the border, New York rates as #6, with a slightly higher rate of gun deaths than New Jersey.
Yet New Jersey still has thousands of lawful gun owners, and New Jerseyans are able to legally own and possess handguns and long arms of various types without a problem. New Jersey does prohibit assault weapons, complete with an extensive list of makes and models, and has a maximum legal magazine capacity of 10—formerly 15.
But how much of New Jersey’s gun laws are simply cosmetic? Does a 10 round magazine used in a crime appreciably make a difference from a 15 round magazine? If the magazines are possessed illegally in the first place, what is the point?
“A lot of people’s guns already had more than the 10 round limit,” Schepisi said, “and that was one of the bills I did vote against when I asked the sponsors on the floor what the rationale was. What were we actually accomplishing by doing that? And nobody could answer it!”
Arguably, fifteen rounds are potentially fifteen people shot in a given instance of firing, versus only ten. But this supposes that the magazine employed in the crime is possessed in accordance with New Jersey law in the first place. Four-fifths of guns used in crimes in New Jersey are from out of state, rendering New Jersey’s tough laws moot in those circumstances. There is no barrier along the Delaware River or New Jersey Highlands which prevents out of state guns from coming in. “Many of the people using guns in crimes in New Jersey are precluded from lawfully purchasing a firearm. Likewise, with the number of fentanyl deaths we’ve had in New Jersey, just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean that somebody who is maybe predisposed to not necessarily care about the legality of something will not acquire it. I know it’s a very difficult conversation often times–how do we not take away rights from law-abiding citizens who may have a gun for anything from hunting to self-protection? But how do we also ensure that guns aren’t getting into the hands of somebody that under no circumstance should ever own a firearm?”
When asked if there were certain types of firearms that should not be available to civilians in general, the senator said that there is a lot of ignorance surrounding the matter, a matter which can be used as a political football when emotions are high and people are searching for signs of action. “On this issue in particular, I think a lot of people don’t understand different types of firearms. People immediately say semi-automatic guns should be banned. A lot of people don’t realize and understand that almost every gun on the market is semi-automatic. Should civilians possess automatic weapons? No.”
A semiautomatic weapon is a gun which fires one round each time the trigger is pulled with no further action, such as operating a bolt, lever, or other mechanism. A fully automatic weapon continues to fire rounds for as long as the trigger is held down, or until its magazine runs empty. The AR-15, for example, is a semiautomatic weapon that cosmetically resembles the M-16 that was used by the military starting in the 1960s. “AR” does not stand for “Assault Rifle” but rather ArmaLite, Inc. which designed the weapon.
Schepisi is not confident that politicians in Trenton understand firearms well enough to actually roll out thoughtful legislation, but they do understand what may appear to be action. “I think a lot of what takes place is gut reaction. Honestly, it was one of the reasons that I voted against some of the gun bills that came through. It is done to get a headline, as opposed to understanding gun technology and understanding that, by way of example, many of the guns that people lawfully owned in New Jersey would be illegal, and you’re essentially turning some people into felons inadvertently.”
That being said, the senator does not favor a firearms free-for-all. She stated her support for universal background checks, qualifications for those with mental health issues, and she also supports raising the purchasing age for certain firearms. “On the national level, almost everything that’s being negotiated and discussed has already been the law in New Jersey for a very long period of time.”
Schepisi’s positions on gun ownership and her concerns with the consequences of well-intended-but-ill-designed legislation stem from her own personal experience as a victim of armed carjacking and robbery in a Washington DC parking lot in her youth. “I was the victim of two, back-to-back, violent crimes when I lived in Washington DC in the early 90s when I went to college, and they were very rattling. I ended up with PTSD as a result. I was going to have a firearm for self-protection in my apartment and I found out that, even as a victim of a crime in DC, at that time, no law abiding citizen was permitted to own a weapon for any reason whatsoever. DC was the murder capital of the entire United States in that same period of time, and the gun violence was off the charts. So, as somebody who had been a victim, who had no recourse for actual protection for myself, it kind of shifted some of my views on whether or not somebody should be able to have a firearm at all. At the time, I was in college, I was young, I was more liberal than I am now, and having lived through two terrible experiences of armed robbery, it shifted my views about self-protection.”
When she came to New Jersey, she acquired a gun for herself and underwent firearms training out of a sense of responsibility.
Governor Phil Murphy, a staunch advocate of gun control, and no friend of the Republican Party, has enacted several new pieces of gun control legislation in his first term of office. Now in his second term, he seeks to roll out a third package, dubbed 3.0, following the shootings in Buffalo, NY, and Uvalde, TX. Schepisi, however, is unimpressed and said that it is primarily to “get headlines” rather than meaningfully address the problem. “I think some of the proposed bills in the 3.0 Gun Package do nothing to help alleviate any sort of illegal gun violence that takes place in New Jersey. From my perspective, all it does is potentially jam up people who are otherwise lawful gun owners with these nuanced new provisions that could really harm somebody who is otherwise fully compliant with everything else.”
When asked whether there was anything valuable or practical in the 3.0 proposals, she said, “Possibly the training component of it. I proactively did it myself when I applied for a gun license. I went and I trained. I didn’t feel comfortable potentially owning a firearm if I didn’t know how to really utilize it. I do think that anybody who wants to be a responsible gun owner should have appropriate training on how to actually use what it is that they purchase.”
While many countries around the world have firearms licenses which need to be periodically renewed, such is not the case in New Jersey. Changing that, which would inevitably increase costs and law enforcement bureaucracy, is unnecessary in Schepisi’s view. “With ‘red flag laws’ and a whole host of other provisions that we’ve put forth, there’s so much latitude for our local police to take a firearm at this point that that’s almost the de facto. Your local police know who may have issues at their homes, DVs, all that sort of stuff. Everybody’s in a database already. A lot of the calls that I received at my office over the past several years have been some people who have been law-abiding citizens—a call may have been placed by somebody, or there is a bad divorce, or something like that, but there’s no substantiation of abuse or mental illness or anything else, just the nature of having an ugly situation—and their guns have been seized. It’s almost impossible to get them back.”
With most gun-related laws being the responsibility of the individual states themselves, there has been gathering pressure in the wake of Uvalde for further federal action. President Joe Biden has called on Congress to act, but even the most strident proponents of gun control realize that there has been no substantial federal action in the last three decades. There are some aspects of New Jersey law Schepisi thinks would be beneficial if applied to the federal level. “I do believe in background checks even for private sales. I believe if somebody has a history of mental illness, addiction, or domestic violence, that’s an absolute red flag. If somebody has overcome something, then keep an analysis of it. I believe that there are reasonable limitations on how somebody acquires a firearm that should be implemented nationally, and I think they absolutely could be done without concerns about infringement on the Second Amendment or any of the arguments that get made.”
For those who have a disqualifying factor in their past, Schepisi felt that these could, in theory, be overcome on a case-by-case basis down the road. More immediately, however, she said, “I do believe that there are important tools like a waiting period. Unless somebody has a real threat against them or their person, I believe that is reasonable. It enables law enforcement and it enables appropriate background checks. It ensures that guns are not getting into the wrong hands or getting into somebody’s hands for a crime-of-passion type of moment.”
In Tulsa, on June 1, 2022, Michael Louis, a patient who had complained of pain following back surgery, shot and killed his doctor and three others, wounding several more before taking his own life. He purchased an “AR-15 style” weapon the same day he carried out the massacre.
“Private sales, I believe, should be subject to the same sort of background checks as well,” Schepisi said. “I think that there is room on the federal level for reasonable conversation to take place to fashion something that you have bipartisan support on. Those discussions, I know, are currently taking place and you do have people on both sides of the aisle who are willing to not go to the furthest extremes of the arguments on the other side—to try to come to something that is measured, that makes sense, and gets to the ultimate goal of trying to prevent these sort of mass episodes.”
With respect to school shootings, across the country, schools have been “hardened” in various ways and students are familiar with active shooter drills, not unlike their parents or grandparents who had grown up diving under their desks during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Except in this case, current schoolchildren and teachers know that their threat is real, has happened, and will happen again somewhere at some point. While schools have physically upgraded their security in the form of windows, door locks, metal detectors, cameras, and in other ways, some—particularly from the Republican Party—have called for teachers themselves to be armed in the classroom. For Schepisi, however, this approach would be disastrous. “I wholeheartedly disagree. Unless the teachers are trained—not just in how to utilize a firearm, but trained in a combat type of situation—I do not believe teachers should be armed.” She explained that a combat situation, which is what an active shooter crisis truly is, puts psychological and physical demands on teachers that cannot be expected of them. “We even see it with police officers. If you have never been in a combat type situation, merely having firearms training at a range does not prepare you psychologically, emotionally, or otherwise, for appropriately responding and utilizing a firearm in the situation, such as somebody who comes in and has made up their mind to slaughter little children. I think we would potentially have additional collateral damage in a situation such as that.”
A more realistic response, the senator says, is to have proper police personnel on hand. “I sponsored legislation several years ago, which did go through, that allows a classification of special law enforcement in schools. I think we need to provide additional funding for that and make that a more robust program. With respect to protecting classrooms in the event of a situation with a mass shooter, we need to have appropriate training for our law enforcement personnel so that what happened in Texas does not happen again. You go in, you take that person out immediately. You don’t wait an hour for backup. You have trained officers throughout our region, who can be there quickly, and have the tactical skills to take somebody out if needed.”
Schepisi lamented the state of affairs, in which schools have to be more secure than ever to protect the students, faculty, and staff compared to years ago when schools, in general, were far more accessible and fears were few and far between. “Unfortunately, the world has changed quite a bit in a whole host of ways. Do I like that even for myself, as a mom? I show up to bring my 10-year-old lunch and I’ve got to hit one buzzer, show my ID, then I get locked in a vestibule. Then I’ve got to hit another buzzer once again, I hand over my driver’s license. I’m a state senator, it’s kind of like, ‘you all know me and my children have been in the school system for a total of 14 years.’ But that’s fine. I do it because I know that’s the protocol.”
The debate will likely continue, especially as federal action (or inaction) provokes subsidiary responses from various state legislatures which, unlike New Jersey, tend to be more reactive than proactive in policy. Politicians will also have to weather the storms which will inevitably follow regardless of what takes place in the halls of power. “It is not an easy topic,” Schepisi said. “You have people on both sides of the issue who are very passionate about how they think on it. I think for a lot of elected officials, they become reticent about talking about it because they don’t want to irk their respective bases.”
Having earned her political stripes in more than a few Bergen-based campaign battles, including the bruising scrap with Robert Auth to succeed Senator Cardinale, surviving a brain aneurysm, and enduring two armed robberies, Holly Schepisi will be more than prepared to handle any and all feedback from her constituents, potentially balking fellow Republicans, and oppositional Democrats.