New Jersey governor says Republicans taking ‘blood money’ from gun lobby

·7 min read

Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy urged state lawmakers to pass a gun control package that stalled last year and, in a searing speech, called out individual Republican lawmakers opposed to gun safety and accused them of taking “blood money” as mass shootings continue across the nation.

In the wake of the devastating elementary school shooting in Texas on Tuesday where a gunman killed at least 19 children and two teachers, Murphy singled out four Republican lawmakers by name who have sponsored or pushed for legislation to expand access to firearms or ammunition and said he is seeking a vote on “every bill seeking to unravel our gun laws.”

“Let’s make every legislator show whose side they have chosen to be on — the people of New Jersey’s or the gun lobby’s,” Murphy said during a press conference in Trenton on Wednesday. “In the face of mass shooting after mass shooting throughout our nation, in the face of children being slaughtered to the point where the reports indicate these beautiful children were unrecognizable, I say let these folks come out from behind their press releases and their tweets and cast votes before the residents of this great state.”

Murphy has repeatedly tried to strengthen gun control laws in New Jersey, which are already among the strongest in the nation, according to the Giffords Law Center, a gun-control advocacy group. The state is overwhelmingly Democratic.

Last year, the governor backed an eight-bill package that would have, among other things, required gun owners to use lockboxes, store ammunition separately from their gun and take safety courses before buying a gun. One bill would have also held the gun industry liable under the state’s public nuisance laws if they “recklessly endanger the public health.”

Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) supported the package.

But only two gun-related bills reached the governor’s desk. Blame for the languished bills fell largely on then-Senate President Steve Sweeney. So some gun control advocates looked forward to Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Union), who has since said that “New Jersey already enjoys some of the strongest gun regulations in the country.”

On Wednesday, Murphy named Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio (R-Warren) who is co-sponsoring NJ A124 (22R) that would eliminate the statutory prohibition against the possession of “hollow point” ammunition, Sen. Ed Durr (R-Gloucester) for sponsoring a bill NJ S2488 (22R) that would remove capacity limits for ammunition magazines and a measure NJ S2490 (22R) that would repeal the Extreme Risk Protective Order Act of 2018 or so-called “red flag law,” which prohibits a person from owning or buying a firearm or ammunition if the person is deemed to pose “a significant danger of bodily injury”

Murphy also called out Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren) for sponsoring a bill NJ S675 (22R) that would allow churches and other places of worship to establish a security program and select one person to carry a handgun during religious services.

“Let’s put every gun bill up, so the people of New Jersey can see, in no uncertain terms, who supports commonsense gun safety and who wants New Jersey’s streets and communities to be flooded with guns,” Murphy said. “Let’s see who the gun lobby banks on with their blood money.”

In a statement to POLITICO on Wednesday, DiMaio said: “what’s more American than having a hearing and an up-or-down vote?”

He added: “But when [Murphy] breaks his rule against speaking on legislation, not on his desk, he should perhaps read them,” noting that his bill would increase penalties for “criminals possessing ammunition.”

A spokesperson for the Senate Republicans called Murphy’s remarks “false and inaccurate.”

Murphy’s speech in Trenton came after an appearance on Fox radio’s Brian Kilmeade Show where guest host Harry Hurley noted Murphy’s rising national profile and rumors the governor may be mulling a presidential run.

Murphy has insisted he has no plans to run for president but his recent speeches and media appearances have fueled rumors he may be aiming for a higher office in the coming years.

His tone on the Fox radio program differed from the one he struck in Trenton, calling on lawmakers from “both sides of the aisle,” to “make a stand that is explicitly against their personal political interests.”

“Anyone who tries to score a political point in the aftermath of this…there's a special place in hell for those folks,” Murphy told Hurley.

In the media room of his West State Street office less than 30 minutes later, Murphy was calling out Republicans by name.

Among Republicans supporting expanded gun legislation, freshman Durr has been the most visible this year.

Durr touted the first phase of his 15-bill package, introduced in early May — less than a week before a gunman shot 13 people and killed 10 in a racist attack at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. — as a “mega bundle” to “advance safe, responsible firearm ownership for law abiding citizens.”

Among the measures in the package are bills that would decriminalize the purchase, possession and transfer of armor-piercing ammunition and firearms with modifications, including sound and flash suppressors, as well as those without serial numbers (NJ S2637 (22R)), allocate $1 million for high schoolers to start gun clubs and take firearms safety courses (NJ S2634 (22R)) and eliminate the 30-day waiting period between handgun purchases (NJ S2602 (22R)).

Brad Schnure, a spokesperson for the Senate Republicans, called Murphy’s characterization of Republicans’ bills during the press conference “false and inaccurate,” in an email to POLITICO Wednesday.

Schnure cited state data regarding Extreme Risk Protective Orders — a process through which a family, household member or law enforcement officer can apply for a court order against a person who they say “presents a significant danger of bodily injury to self or others by possessing or purchasing a firearm.” The data shows that since Sept. 2019, a total of 726 protective order petitions were filed in the state. Of those, courts granted 664 temporary protective orders, and of those temporary protective orders, the courts granted 325 as permanent or “final."

In a press release announcing the protective order figures in 2021, former Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck said the orders were “likely preventing countless gun violence-related tragedies and saving lives.”

Schnure said the data instead shows “the red-flag law has resulted in more lawful gun owners being harassed unnecessarily than guns taken away from dangerous people.”

The two bills that the whole legislature approved and the governor signed didn’t address the key issues in the gun control debate. One simply supported Murphy’s call to reconvene a “States for Gun Safety Summit.” The other requires schools to practice what to do when someone brings a gun to school to murder children and teachers.

On Wednesday, Coughlin said in a statement in New Jersey, “common sense gun safety has been the answer and our will to act has made us a leader in the fight to keep our communities safe.”

But said “we need to look to strengthen our gun safety laws,” and “get to the heart of the problem by investing in a robust plan to address mental health. The fact that our young people are in crisis is undeniable.”

At an event in South Jersey, Scutari was noncommittal on advancing the governor’s third gun package but said New Jersey would not move back on gun control.

“New Jersey's got some of the strongest gun laws in the nation already,” Scutari said in an interview. “And some Republican colleagues of mine have ideas to roll those back. They have ideas to increase magazine capacity, they have ideas to allow hollow points for citizens. We're certainly not going in that direction. We’re gonna give [Murphy’s] bills, the proper vetting like everyone does. ... We'll give them consideration.”

In a statement following the event, Scutari said he "will keep an open mind on any additional actions that will reduce gun violence."

“Not only do we need stronger laws federally and in other states on access to firearms, but it is time we hold gun manufacturers accountable the same way we hold any other manufacturer accountable," Scutari said.

On school security measures, New Jersey Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin directed the State Police and county prosecutors to increase law enforcement presence at schools throughout the state “effective immediately,” according to a statement from Platkin’s office sent out Tuesday night.

“We’re tired of having to direct law enforcement to be in front of schools,” Platkin said in Trenton Wednesday. “It is ongoing, but we're tired of the fact that it's ongoing.”

Katherine Landergan and Daniel Han contributed to this report.