Christie Gun-Control Veto Faces Lawmakers in Bid to Overrideby
N.J. lower house vote may mark governor's first rejection
Mental-health check a sticking point on presidential trail
On the Republican presidential campaign trail, Governor Chris Christie brags about fending off a “crazy liberal” New Jersey legislature with more than 400 vetoes.
Not once since Christie took office in 2010 have majority Democrats mustered enough votes in both legislative houses to overturn any of those vetoes. The streak would end Thursday if enough of his own party members in the Assembly defy him on a gun-control measure he rejected in August.
In October, three Republican lawmakers broke ranks, siding with Democrats for the first-ever successful Christie override in the Senate. The move signaled cracks in the governor’s wall of support and forced scrutiny of his record among U.S. voters who treasure the right to bear arms. Once a proponent of gun control, Christie has rejected recent attempts to limit sales and possession, bringing him in line with voter sentiment in Iowa and New Hampshire, where early contests will thin the field seeking the Republican nomination.
“If you’re actually opposed to personal ownership of firearms, you’re opposed to freedoms,” said Mitch Kopacz, president of Gun Owners of New Hampshire, a Concord-based group that is the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association. “It’s a litmus test of, ‘Do you understand the constitution?’"
The New Jersey legislation would require extra law-enforcement review of gun-license applicants who try to expunge mental hospitalization records. In his veto message on Aug. 10, Christie criticized it as part of “patchwork proposals and fragmented statutes,” and he recommended a broader mental-health focus, as he first proposed last year. Since then, he wrote, “we have only seen more tragic examples of individuals suffering from mental illness that have committed horrific acts of violence.”
The bipartisan measure passed both chambers unanimously this year. For a successful override, seven Republicans must side with all Assembly Democrats. The number had been six until Wednesday, when a resignation letter was submitted by Democratic Assemblyman Gilbert L. "Whip" Wilson of Camden, a retired police lieutenant. He cited his election last month as Camden County sheriff, a position to which he’ll be sworn in January.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat from Secaucus, had said this week he wasn’t sure he had the votes. He didn’t return a phone call Thursday for comment on the timing of Wilson’s departure.
Republicans who reverse their initial vote, and uphold Christie’s veto, will be conspiring to score political points for the governor, Prieto said.
“If it was good enough the first time, to have every member in Trenton vote for it, it should be the same thing,” Prieto said in an interview.
A Republican sponsor, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, now says his own measure doesn’t go far enough. Democratic leaders should instead focus on more pressing concerns, such as reducing property taxes, the highest in the nation, he said.
“They want to play national politics and somehow show how overrides and Chris Christie become the topic over policy,” Bramnick, of Westfield, said in an interview.
Another Republican, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon Jr. of Little Silver, described the bill as “a marginally good idea,” though not significant enough to warrant an override. He would vote alongside Democrats, he said, only if they introduce other legislation “that will improve the tax situation in New Jersey, that will affect New Jersey’s budget genuinely.”
A half-dozen other Assembly Republicans didn’t respond to phone messages asking how they would vote. Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, declined to comment on the override effort.
“Questions on the vote should be directed to the Assembly,” he said in an e-mail.
Christie has seized on his veto record to distinguish himself as a conservative in a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates.
“I’m a Republican in New Jersey -- I wake up every morning as an outsider,” he said during the CNN Republican debate in Simi Valley, California, on Sept. 16. “I’ve vetoed 400 bills from a crazy liberal Democratic legislature.”
Speaking on Nov. 3 to reporters outside his polling place in Mendham, Christie said that Assembly Republicans were “free to vote their conscience” on the firearms issue.
“You folks think they don’t vote to override vetoes because of some magical powers I have over them,” he said. “It’s because we agree on most things.”
Christie, during a failed 1993 bid for state Senate, campaigned against some Republicans’ bid to repeal gun legislation, stating: “In today’s society, no one needs a semi-automatic assault weapon.” In a Nov. 24 interview on Fox News, Christie told host Bret Baier that he didn’t remember making that statement.
New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest firearms laws, with an overall grade of A- on a scale from A to F, according to a 2014 ranking by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Iowa received a C- and New Hampshire a D-.
In 2013, Christie signed 10 bills related to firearms, including stiffened penalties for unlawful possession and trafficking, and legislation disqualifying individuals on the U.S. terrorist watch list from owning guns. He also flipped on .50-caliber rifles, vetoing a ban that he had proposed.
His presidential campaign website says: “Chris Christie will not allow political agendas to further restrict the rights of law-abiding gun owners, and as governor of New Jersey he has fought to defend gun rights.”
That position would win him notice among 31 percent of firearms owners, 30 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of conservatives who in an Oct. 19 Gallup poll said they support candidates based on gun-control positions.
Even if Christie sways voters in New Hampshire and Iowa on firearms, a wider population -- 55 percent of Americans -- want stricter gun laws, according to a Gallup poll of 1,015 adults. The survey, issued on Oct. 19, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
“The governor does not want to see this override happen,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “It makes him look weak nationally on a litmus-test issue.”