By Charles Stile – The Record
The former federal prosecutor, who once hunted down out-of-state gun traffickers, had a chance to make a blunt, compelling case for tighter gun laws last week. But Governor Christie took a pass.
Christie, who now grabs the nation’s attention every time he thunders from his Trenton pulpit, went low-key and cautious, refusing to feed the 24-hour media cycle he has so masterfully exploited over the past four years.
He unveiled the mother of all Trenton play-it-safe strategies — a task force with a clever acronym, staffed with experts and elder statesmen and put on a 60-day deadline to deliver suggestions.
Christie gave it a no-holds-barred mandate to explore root causes of violence, like mental illness, the potential impact of violent video games, and drug and alcohol addiction. He wants issues like school security explored. Oh, and let’s not forget, gun control. Possible improvements to New Jersey laws will be studied but only as a piece of the larger, “holistic” approach to reducing violence.
“If we call this just gun control, in my view we’re missing out on the bigger story,” Christie said. “We have to call this violence control.”
Of course, the sentiment and purpose is perfectly sensible, even laudable. After all, a horrified nation has been asking those very questions since Adam Lanza, armed with a high-capacity semiautomatic rifle, massacred 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last month. It’s also a nation now demanding new restrictions on the sale of guns and ammunition.
But Christie, who didn’t mention gun control or the Newtown massacre in his State of the State speech, signaled that he’s not an enthusiastic champion of more gun laws. While he said the panel is not to have its hands tied with preconceived conclusions, he also took pains to restate his “very clear” position, which is, that New Jersey should enforce the strong laws it already has on the books. It was as if he was telling panel members standing behind him that they probably shouldn’t waste too much of their time exploring new gun restrictions.
And when pressed by reporters to weigh in on the national debate on issues such as a federal ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, Christie has avoided the question.
“You can ask me as many times as you want, and when I believe it’s appropriate for me to give an opinion on that, I’ll give one,” he said last Thursday.
Christie has tried to walk a fine line as a Republican governor running for reelection in a Democratic Northeast state. He surprised the political establishment last month by criticizing the National Rifle Association’s call for putting armed guards in public schools. And Christie said an NRA attack video that featured the president’s two daughters was “reprehensible.” Those headlines help moderate his image in blue Jersey.
But Christie, touted as a potential Republican nominee for president in 2016, cannot go so far as to actually enact new gun-control restrictions. Gun owners and supporters in the South and Midwest would label him as a can’t-be-trusted Northeast liberal in pseudo conservative cloth. He cannot afford angering the NRA, whose political action committee poured $855,387 into Republican campaigns in 2012, roughly 87 percent of its political giving, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks federal campaign spending.
The NRA also donated a combined $250,000 to the Republican Governors Association in 2011 and 2012, records show. The group is expected to be heavily involved in Christie’s reelection campaign this year. And if he wins, Christie is slated to become the group’s chairman in 2014.
The irony is that Christie could be a vocal advocate for tougher federal gun laws, especially the need for strong, universal background checks and screenings for gun purchases. As the U.S. attorney for New Jersey in 2003, Christie shut down a gun-trafficking ring in Ohio that was supplying guns to gang members in Orange and East Orange. The trafficker was hiring “straw buyers” who legally bought guns.
Prosecutor Christie also took the unusual step of going outside his jurisdiction and indicting the gun shop owner on the grounds that he knew that he was feeding an illegal pipeline. It was a classic case of how the lax laws in other states undermined the enforcement and citizens in New Jersey, where it can take months to get a permit to buy a gun.
Christie, the Republican of national renown, appears now to have no intention of making a case for federal background checks. Or for any federal law, for that matter.
“My obligation as governor is to put things in order here in my state,” he said.
So while the task force might examine, even recommend some of the gun-control measures advocated by New Jersey Democrats — such as reducing the number of bullets a magazine can carry from 15 to 10 or fewer — don’t expect Christie to embrace them. And don’t expect him to persuasively cite his career tracking down gun traffickers from Ohio in 2003. Nor should you expect to hear how gun trafficking still undermines New Jersey’s tough laws. Last month, the state attorney general rounded up 28 people on gun trafficking and weapons-related charges as part of its “Passaic Corridor Initiative.” Police collected dozens of semiautomatic guns, sawed-off shotguns and pistols, most of them legally purchased in other states.
That crackdown might prompt the task force to defy Christie and urge him to lobby for a tough, uniform system of background checks. But on this issue, Christie is avoiding that stage. And he’ll probably want to keep it that way.