By KATHY CHANG
Gun dealers are doing brisk business in the Garden State, where stringent gun laws require thorough background checks for the right to own a firearm.
With the uptick in gun sales possibly propelled by recent mass shootings across the country and the national debate on gun control, gun ownership remains a deeply personal decision.
Alexander Roubian, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, said his life, and his viewpoint on guns, changed on the evening of May 25, 2011.
“I was walking home in Newark when I saw a guy shot right in front of me,” Roubian said, recalling the night. “I was probably 20 feet away. … If I didn’t (stop to) take that one text, I would have been the one crossing paths with those three teenagers and I would have been the victim.”
A 42-year-old man was fatally shot as he was walking home that night, allegedly by three teenagers who tried to rob him.
“My mindset on guns at the time was indifferent,” he said, explaining that shooting a friend’s gun at target practice was his only relationship with firearms. “I was straight out of college, having graduated from Rutgers University, and I was not thinking anything like that (his experience in Newark) could happen.”
Roubian said his close brush with gun violence in Newark led to many sleepless nights and he started looking into owning a gun and researching gun rights on public forums. He eventually joined the New Jersey Second Amendment Society.
“I thought (becoming a gun owner) was going to be easy,” he said, adding that the process of obtaining a gun was far from easy in New Jersey.
Roubian became more involved with the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, serving as vice president in 2014 before becoming the organization’s president in January 2015.
“It has become like a full-time job,” he said about serving as president. “We have a membership of thousands of people in New Jersey and we also have members throughout the country.”
The organization’s stated mission is to promote the free exercise of Second Amendment protected rights in the community and Legislature of New Jersey, to educate the community regarding the enjoyable, safe and responsible use of firearms, and to engender a spirit of camaraderie and fellowship among the members and their families.
“It has been incredible meeting so many gun owners,” Roubian said of his position. “These people are moms and dads coming from all different walks of life who do not want to be treated as second class citizens because they are a gun owner.”
New Jersey is ranked high on the list of having the most stringent gun laws in the United States.
“We literally have the most stringent gun laws in the nation,” said Michael Paquette, associate professor of criminal justice at Middlesex County College, Edison, and a retired police chief in South Brunswick. “I can’t see how the laws can get any tighter.”
According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit organization that supports gun control, New Jersey is ranked third in the nation with the strictest gun laws, behind Connecticut and California.
David Liantonio, a retired Metuchen police sergeant, said the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right for individuals to bear arms; however, in New Jersey that right comes with many restrictions.
A person has to be at least 18 years old to obtain a firearm identification card from their local police department and at least 21 years old to obtain a handgun permit.
“A person has to get a permit for each handgun purchase, can only get three permits in a certain period and can only buy one handgun per month,” Liantonio said.
He said the application process includes a background check and a mental health consent form that is sent to the county for review. The application for a gun permit also includes two reference checks.
Ira Levin, the owner of Legend Firearms, Marlboro, said the gun permit process can take between four and six weeks depending on the police department where the permit is sought and the department’s workload.
According to the New Jersey State Police, a gun permit will not be issued if a person has been convicted of any crime; is drug dependent; has been or is then confined for a mental disorder in any institution; is an habitual drunkard or an alcoholic; suffers from a physical defect or disease which would make it unsafe for him or her to handle firearms; knowingly falsifies any information on the application form for a gun permit; refuses to waive statutory or other rights of confidentiality related to institutional confinement; and where the issuance would otherwise not be in the interest of the public health, safety and welfare.
Liantonio said that, unlike the restrictions that govern the purchase of handguns, people can buy any number of shotguns and rifles with a firearm identification card.
“However, the right to carry a handgun is another beast and very stringent in New Jersey,” he said. “There has to be a reason. For example, a person working for a security firm has to carry (a firearm) for work, but that person can’t carry (the firearm) to a supermarket.”
Liantonio, who said he had to apply for a retired law enforcement officer permit to carry a handgun now, said he only saw one application a year for a carry permit when he was working for the police department in Metuchen.
He said that during his 20-year career, while there were some people who did apply for a gun permit so they could obtain a weapon for their personal protection, the people who usually applied for gun permits were mostly hunters and gun collectors.
“There was always an uptick [of gun permit applications] after a mass shooting,” he said. “People are afraid the federal government will restrict them from buying guns.”
And that was the case with the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, and the executive orders aimed at reducing gun violence that President Barack Obama announced on Jan. 5.
“Gun sales nationwide, including in New Jersey, are exploding as a result of these actions, as law-abiding citizens realize these actions (by legislators) are targeted at them and not at violent criminals,” said Scott Bach, the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs.
Howell Police Detective Sgt. Christian Antunez said that since Obama issued his executive orders, the records personnel who are responsible for processing gun permit applications have been overwhelmed with work.
“I can tell you there has been a significant increase in firearms ID card [and] permit applications,” Antunez said.
Greater Media Newspapers requested statistics of how many gun permits were issued over the last three years in Howell; however, Antunez said that, due to the amount of work and time required processing current applications, the records personnel were unable to compile the statistics requested at this time.
In Middletown, Deputy Chief Stephen Dollinger said it was “too soon to tell” if the president’s executive orders would increase gun permit applications in the township. However, statistics compiled in Middletown show a spike in gun permits in 2013 after the December 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults and wounded many others.
Middletown issued 747 gun permits in 2012, 1,000 in 2013, 752 in 2014, and 696 in 2015.
In Jackson, the police department issued 711 gun permits in 2013, 507 in 2014, and 540 in 2015, according to Police Capt. Steven Laskiewicz.
In Edison and Woodbridge, the fifth and sixth largest municipalities in the state, the number of gun permits has varied over the last three years.
In Woodbridge, 1,583 gun permits were issued in 2012, 1,621 in 2013, 1,325 in 2014, and 1,671 in 2015, according to John Hagerty, communications director for the township.
The Edison Police Department issued 13 gun permits between Jan. 1-6, 2016, according to Police Capt. Mark Anderko. The department issued 642 gun permits in 2012, 847 in 2013, 650 in 2014, and 591 in 2015.
Discussions about gun control lead to increases in the gun sale business, according to gun rights advocates and gun dealers.
“Gun sale business here at Red Dot Firearms has been up tremendously since the San Bernardino shooting, especially with females,” said owner Jim Hawthorne, who noted business has increased 35 percent since that terrorist act. “People just don’t feel safe anymore, and when people hear about these Second Amendment infringements it causes fear so they go out and secure firearms so they can protect their families.”
Red Dot Firearms, in Stanhope, Sussex County, offers a National Rifle Association Safety First Firearm training course which, Hawthorne said, has been popular.
“We see husbands and wives between 55 and 65 years old in the class, as well as a lot of younger females,” he said.
Opinions are strong when it comes to gun laws in New Jersey and about Obama’s recent executive orders.
The executive orders direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to require any business that engages in the sale of guns to obtain a federal license to do so and to conduct background checks, which enhances the effectiveness of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This requirement applies to gun stores, sellers of guns at gun shows and sellers of guns over the Internet.
The executive orders also provide for greater education and enforcement efforts of existing laws at the state level.
Bach said Obama’s executive actions would not have prevented any of the recent tragic events.
Roubian said gun laws in New Jersey are redundant.
Hawthorne said background checks are already done with every handgun purchase.
“Criminals do not come to our establishments to purchase their guns,” Hawthorne said. “In my opinion, [these executive orders] are targeting law-abiding citizens.”
Hawthorne said the gun laws in New Jersey, especially the conceal carry laws, are archaic. He said politicians should focus on gun safety and require mandatory training for first-time gun owners.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in an interview on CBS-TV’s Face the Nation on Jan. 10, addressed his thoughts on gun laws in New Jersey with journalist John Dickerson.
“In New Jersey, I have grown up in a culture in our state of very, very vigorous anti-gun laws,” Christie said. “And my actions as governor of New Jersey have been exactly where I think they need to be. When these things involve public safety, I’m for public safety. But if there are laws that are just going to make legislators and governors feel better, they shouldn’t be in place and infringe Second Amendment rights.”
Christie, who said his mindset on gun laws has evolved since he served as the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, went on to say that if he had a choice, New Jersey would be a state where a person could apply for a gun carry permit more easily.
“We are a may-issue (the permit) state, not a shall-issue (the permit) state,” he said. “We should be a shall-issue state so people can defend themselves.”
Levin, who is the president of the New Jersey Firearms Dealer Association, said gun dealers are not the problem.
“The problem is the failure of our government to enact legislation that puts and keeps criminals in prison and enforces firearms responsibility,” Levin said.
On the other side of the opinion spectrum, the Rev. Robert Moore, the leader of New Jersey’s oldest and largest gun violence prevention group, Ceasefire New Jersey Project (CFNJ), praised Obama’s executive orders.
“His executive actions will make a significant contribution to reducing the estimated 40 percent of gun sales that have no background checks, especially of guns sold at gun shows or online,” he said.
Moore said CFNJ is also pleased the president is adding the resources of the federal government to improve gun safety technology and seeking major new funding to treat individuals who have mental illness.
Paquette said he believes New Jersey does a great job monitoring who can have a gun. “No rights are limitless,” he said.
The retired police chief said Obama’s executive orders close loopholes as to what constitutes a gun shop. “I don’t believe there is any erosion on the Second Amendment at all,” he said. “Everyone has their personal opinions, but I think it was a good move by the president.”
Paquette said he believes the biggest problem the nation faces is trying to avert tragedies like the mass shooting in Newtown. He said that as a professor of criminal justice for 10 years, discussions about gun control and gun rights are part of the curriculum from the history of the Second Amendment to the definitions of a militia.
“I would be remiss if it wasn’t discussed,” he said. “Everyone has strong opinions.”