Up until the point that they infringe on the Second Amendment, New Jersey’s lawmakers have every right to pass restrictive gun laws. To the extent that these laws have the support of the state’s population, legislators should pass them. That’s how constitutional democracy works.
What no legislator should ever do, however, is allow the police to throw innocent, well-meaning people in jail. And that’s what New Jersey’s state government has been doing for the past several years.
Utah’s Gregg Revell is a victim of this trend, but his is only the most recent story to make the news. Just last week, the Supreme Court declined to consider his lawsuit against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which had been dismissed by a lower court. The court decision is debatable, but what’s certain is that what happened to Revell under New Jersey law was unconscionable.
His lawsuit stemmed from his arrest in New Jersey in early 2005. Revell had booked a flight from Salt Lake City to Allentown, Pa., which included a transfer in Newark. He was picking up a car he had bought online and driving it back to Utah, so he wanted his handgun with him for protection. As the law requires, he declared the gun when he checked his bag.
Unfortunately, his flight was late, and the airline decided to send passengers to Allentown via bus. He checked to see whether his luggage was on board — and it wasn’t. The airline had tagged it to stop at Newark. He left the secure area to get his bag, the bus left without him, and the airline decided to put him in a hotel for the night.
The next morning, though he was (once again) boarding a bus to Allentown, he needed to go through flight security — and that’s when problems started. He declared his firearm at the ticket counter, and again to the TSA. “They went in back, then came up and asked for the keys,” he recalls. “They opened them and decided they would call the police.”
Revell was arrested. In New Jersey, residents are forbidden to have their guns with them outside their homes, unless they have a New Jersey carry permit or qualify for an exemption to the law. Federal law protects people who are simply passing through a state with guns, but it does not specifically say that it applies when guns are being carried by hand, as opposed to being stored, unloaded, in a vehicle.
Police handcuffed Revell and brought him out of the airport. “All the mothers were pulling their children close to them because of this dangerous criminal coming through,” Revell remembers. He spent a total of ten days in jail. He was held first in a Port Authority holding cell, next in an Essex County cell with about 20 other inmates and a toilet that didn’t flush. He was in quarantine, about to be transferred into the general population — no place for a 57-year-old white man, other inmates warned him — when his $15,000 bail came through.
It took two months for the charges to be dropped via an “administrative dismissal.” “I thought I would lose my real-estate license, because you can’t have one if you’re a felon — and go back and be killed in jail,” he says. “Not a fun two months.” Later, the NRA and the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs helped him sue the Port Authority. The courts, however, decided that the federal law protecting the transportation of handguns did not apply to his situation.
Revell isn’t the only person who’s been tortured by New Jersey’s gun laws. Especially problematic is the Graves Act, which was a perfectly fine policy when it was enacted in 1981: It stated that when someone uses a gun to commit a crime, that person shall serve a minimum sentence of three years. In early 2008, however, then-governor Jon Corzine signed an amendment to the law, aiming to combat gang violence. Now, with a few exceptions, anyone caught with an illegal gun — no matter how obscure the technicality or how innocent the mistake that made it illegal — gets a three-year sentence.