LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Former Attorney General Says Assault Weapons Ban Has Made New Jersey Safer

With recent incidents of gun violence, including the Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting and the Newtown, Conn. school shooting, some lawmakers are looking to limit the availability of certain types of weapons and ammunition. Sen. Frank Lautenberg introduced a bill this week that would ban the sale of high-capacity magazines of ammunition. He also introduced legislation meant to close the so-called gun show loophole, which doesn’t require private vendors to conduct a background check on buyers. Former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey, who helped craft the state’s assault weapons ban, told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that limiting access to high-powered weapons and ammunition would help curb violence.

Harvey explained that nine times out of 10, a person trying to buy a silencer or a grenade would be arrested before ever getting one of those products because of the lack of availability. The same would apply to other weapons. “To the extent you can make these weapons — semiautomatic, military style assault weapons — unavailable, they’re harder to get and it increases the chances that law enforcement will stop you before you buy them,” he said.

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The former attorney general said he worked on New Jersey’s assault weapons ban during the administrations of both Tom Kean and Jim Florio and that Gov. Florio signed the bill. New Jersey was the second state to pass such a law, behind California, though Harvey said California law grandfathered in those who already owned the weapons while New Jersey did not. “We banned it. So you either had to sell it or render it permanently inoperable,” he explained. “And we had a list of approximately 36 weapons and anything substantially similar.”

Some have argued that a federal assault weapons ban is unnecessary because states like Utah have a very low rate of violence and open gun laws. Harvey said while the state may seem safe now, it only takes one incident. “It’s safe until someone decides to barricade himself or herself into a building or a home and hold off an entire police force, which you can,” he said.

Harvey explained that the AR-15, which was used by the Newtown shooter, is manufactured by Colt and is modeled after the M16. “That weapon has a kill distance of 500 yards. That means you can stand in one end zone and shoot five football fields and kill someone. They don’t see you, you don’t see them. There’s no reason to have that,” he said.

While Harvey agrees that most gun violence occurs with handguns in cities like Camden, Newark, Philadelphia and New York City, violent acts like those in Aurora and Newtown involved assault weapons.

Harvey said he didn’t know all the details of Gov. Chris Christie’s New Jersey Safe Task Force that is meant to investigate gun control, addiction, mental illness, the level of violence currently in society and school safety. But he said he is opposed to arming school principals. “What worries me about civilians with guns is that if there’s an incident at the school, first of all the gunman may come to the principal’s office first to kill the principal and take the weapon,” he said. “Secondly, if a teen comes in because they hear of a shooting and they see a civilian walking with a gun, they don’t know if he’s the shooter or not.”

While Harvey said discussing violence in a broader sense, including violent video games, may help, a ban on assault weapons would be better. “At the end of the day, what helps even more is the lack of availability of certain kinds of weapons, to the extent you make those weapons unavailable, make them harder to get. And you begin taxing things like bullets, the ammunition that goes in them. You begin to make us a little bit safer,” he said. “And we’ve seen that in New Jersey, which is why you don’t see that many incidents in New Jersey now.”