After signing six gun control measures into law a year ago, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy warned that “Our work is far from done.” Several new bills are now making the rounds in a state already notorious for its extreme and oppressive firearm laws.
The “smart gun” bill is especially interesting given the history of such legislation in the state.
Back in 2002, New Jersey enacted a bill sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg on “personalized handguns” (those with technology allowing use exclusively by an authorized or recognized user). As soon as the attorney general had made a determination that “at least one manufacturer has delivered at least one production model of a personalized handgun to a registered or licensed wholesale or retail dealer” anywhere in the country, the law imposed a prohibition that would ultimately ban retail sales of any handgun in New Jersey that was not a “personalized handgun.” Dealers that violated the law would be guilty of a crime.
While banning the sales of handguns other than “personalized handguns” was apparently justified in the interest of public safety, consumers were misguided if they interpreted this legislative policy as representing the government’s actual endorsement of these products. The law made it clear that nothing in the legislative scheme, including the promulgation of a state-approved list of “personalized handguns” that could be sold, constituted “a representation, warranty or guarantee by any public entity or employee with regard to the safety, use or any other aspect or attribute of a personalized handgun.”
The 2002 law has yet to be implemented, although in 2014, the attorney general reported that a handgun based on an RFID chip did not satisfy the statutory definition of a “personalized handgun” because, “as a matter of design, the pistol may be fired by a person who is not an authorized or recognized user.” Quite apart from design flaws and reliability concerns, gun purchasers have opposed any legislatively-mandated market for smart guns, and remain unwilling to “buy in” to any technology that would trigger a total ban on retail sales of traditional handguns in New Jersey.
In 2015 and 2016, Senator Weinberg introduced new bills on “smart guns.”
The 2016 bill, S816, would repeal the retail sales ban in the 2002 law and replace it with a different constraint on gun sales. A new state commission, the Personalized Handgun Authorization Commission, would decide on and publish a roster of approved “personalized handguns.” Every licensed dealer selling handguns would be required to carry, as part of its inventory, “at least one personalized handgun approved by” the commission. Along with the compulsory inventory, the bill included mandatory presentation and signage requirements. The handgun would have to be “displayed in a conspicuous manner that [made] it easily visible to customers and distinguishable from other traditional handguns,” with “a clear and conspicuous statement disclosing the unique features of the personalized handgun that are not offered by traditional handguns.” A dealer that failed to comply (and had not obtained a financial hardship-based exemption from these requirements) faced fines and license suspension.
The governor at the time, Chris Christie, conditionally vetoed S816, recommending that the bill be pared down to a straightforward repeal. The legislature, he noted, had apparently recognized the mistake of enacting the 2002 law, an “overly burdensome and anti-free-market statute” that had “never been used because the technology imagined by lawmakers did not exist then and still does not exist today.” Despite his “wholehearted support” of the repeal, he declined to approve S816 because it “replaced one unnecessary mandate with another unjustified restriction on firearms sales.” The bill, he concluded, was “reflective of the relentless campaign by the Democratic legislature to make New Jersey as inhospitable as possible to lawful gun ownership” and legitimate firearm sales.
Fast forward to 2019. The most recent “smart gun” bill, A1016, is essentially a duplicate of S816. The bill’s new and complex bureaucracy, as-yet-undetermined “performance standards,” and testing requirements before “personalized handguns” may be approved for retail sale have the same potential to promote the development of reliable “smart gun” technology as did New Jersey’s previous legislation. And – despite these new testing and performance standards –the bill preserves the consumer warning against interpreting the law as a government “representation, warranty or guarantee … with regard to the safety, use or any other aspect or attribute of a personalized handgun.”
Understandably, gun rights advocates, firearm retailers, and everyday gun owners appeared before the Assembly Judiciary Committee to oppose this bill. A1016 simply swaps one unacceptable market constraint for another.
Given the dismal failure of one “smart gun” measure, New Jersey legislators should hesitate when presented with a fresh variant of the same dud law. One failed law is enough.