Personalized Handgun Law Backfires, by Merissa Pico
Like a gun might, this New Jersey legislature’s bill backfired. In 2002, New Jersey’s democratically controlled legislature passed the Childproof Handgun Law, which aimed to promote the use of personalized handguns.
Personalized guns, or “smart guns,” as they are also known, use technology so the guns can only be used by an authorized or recognized user.
The 2002 law, which was signed into law by then Governor James McGreevey, requires all handguns sold in New Jersey to be smart guns within 30 months of personalized handguns becoming available anywhere in the country. The statute tasks the New Jersey Attorney General with determining which handguns qualify as smart guns and when smart guns have become available as set forth under the law. In other words, it would not matter if a smart handgun was actually sold or not; as long as a smart handgun was available for sale anywhere in the nation, the clock would start and within 30 months, all handguns sold in New Jersey would have to be smart guns.
According to the 2002 law’s sponsor, New Jersey State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the 2002 law’s objective was to stimulate the “research, development and manufacture” of smart guns.
Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the law has had the opposite effect: it inadvertently stunted the availability of personalized handguns nationwide. Fifteen years since its enactment, smart handguns are still not available for purchase in the United States. This is despite the fact that the technology exists; smart guns are available for sale in Europe and Asia.
Viewing the New Jersey law as an attack on the second amendment, the pro-gun sector has stifled any movement in making smart guns available. In addition to one gun store in California, in 2014, one Maryland gun storeowner, Andy Raymond, set out to sell the first smart gun in the nation. However, like the California store, Raymond decided not to go through with making smart guns available for sale, after both received hundreds of protests on his store’s Facebook page as well as death threats. If Raymond or the California store had successfully done so, the thirty-month clock in New Jersey’s 2002 law would have started, an effect that the pro-gun sector was well aware.
While it is clear that the 2002 law effectively entrenched the standstill on smart gun development, it should be noted that the pro-gun lobby has not necessarily embraced the smart gun initiative with open arms over the years.
Opponents of the 2002 law have objected to the state-mandated market for smart guns, believing that a market for smart guns, if there should be one, should emerge without any government intervention. Further, many gun owners have concerns about the reliability of the smart gun technology, fearing that the technology will falter when and if they need it to protect their lives.
An attempt to fix this legislative conundrum that New Jersey’s legislature created for themselves and the rest of the country, the legislature in 2016 introduced a new bill, S816, to amend the 2002 law. Also sponsored by Senator Weinberg, S816 would repeal the portions of the 2002 law that would have made it illegal to sell traditional handguns once personalized hand guns become available, thereby effectively eliminating the technology freeze. Additionally, S816 mandates that firearms merchants and dealers maintain an inventory of at least one model of smart gun to sell. Under the bill, the Attorney General would determine on which smart guns would be acceptable.
The democratically controlled New Jersey senate approved the bill in February of 2016 by a vote of 21-13. New Jersey governor and former 2016 U.S. Presidential candidate, Chris Christie, pocket vetoed the bill in September of 2016. A pocket veto means that the governor does not return the bill to the New Jersey legislature; therefore, the veto cannot be overridden. In his strongly worded conditional veto message, Governor Christie said the new bill was the latest in the “relentless campaign by the Democratic legislature to make New Jersey as inhospitable as possible to lawful gun ownership and sales.” Believing that the new bill’s mandate is a constraint on business and “likely is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause,” Governor Christie went on advocate for a full repeal of the 2002 law with no additional mandate.
With the bill having been pocket vetoed and sent back to the statehouse, the New Jersey legislature can either amend the bill to Governor Christie’s liking or it will die in the state senate. If the bill dies, the 2002 law will remain in place in its entirety without any amendment. Therefore, until it is amended or repealed, the law could continue to have the same stifling effect on nation-wide smart gun availability into the unforeseen future.
Senator Weinberg has publically offered to repeal the 2002 law in its entirety if the National Rifle Association (NRA), promised to not impede or block the “research, development, manufacture or distribution of this technology.” However, to date, there has not been any movement on this offer.
It is frequently said that the law lags behind technology. More often than not, this is true (see 1986 Electronic Communication Privacy Act). Yet, this time, the law and legislative process is not lagging behind technology, but rather, with full recognition and understanding, is choosing to stifle technology. Who knew that a little New Jersey law would have such an unintended consequence? For fifteen-years and counting, partisan division and policy differences have kept available technology out of reach from American citizens. Perhaps soon, the technology will become available under conditions favorable to all Americans, politicians and private citizens alike.
Merissa Pico is from Fort Lee, New Jersey and graduated summa cum laude from Boston University’s College of Communication in 2015 with a B.S. in Mass Communication Studies. She is expected to earn her J.D. from Boston University School of Law in 2018. Merissa will be working at Ropes & Gray in New York City in the summer of 2017 and is looking forward to continuing to explore her interests in entertainment and communications law.