Politics & Policy

Christie’s Belated Backtrack on Guns

The New Jersey governor just vetoed gun bills he had supported — conservatives shouldn’t buy it.

Those searching for tangible signs that Chris Christie is preparing himself for something bigger than Drumthwacket need look no further than to the comical events of last Friday, on which day Christie vetoed his own gun-control bill. Why else would a man who has one of the worst Second Amendment records in the country choose to go against New Jersey’s political grain in order to kill a measure that he himself had argued for?

Christie used his conditional veto to water down to the vanishing point two proposals that had passed the state’s legislature by comfortable margins. The first of these would have linked gun purchases with legal records on a digital “smart card” available to a number of state agencies, required all New Jerseyans to undergo training before they could own a guns, and banned all private sales of firearms. Effectively gutting the bill, Christie argued that the requisite technology for smart cards did not exist and that the training and sales provisions were too draconian. A second bill would have banned all future sales of .50-caliber rifles and confiscated those already owned in the state. This one Christie vetoed outright.

The governor’s explanation for this second veto was as disastrous as it was transparent. As ThinkProgress noted with typical irritation, Christie “claims he vetoed the bill because it went further than he would have preferred.” Given that the bill would not just have prohibited the further sale of .50-caliber rifles but would have confiscated those already purchased, this certainly seems reasonable enough. Yet it wasn’t the primary reason that Christie gave. Instead, he grumbled that “the bill passed by the legislature seeks to ban a firearm that has reportedly never been used in a crime in New Jersey.” “The wide scope of this total ban,” Christie concluded, “will not further public safety, but only interfere with lawful recreational pastimes.”

All of this is perfectly true. Because they are almost impossible to carry, cost upwards of $12,000, and require ammunition that works out to about $5 per round, the Barrett .50-caliber rifle is hardly the weapon du choix of the average liquor-store crook. Then again, this was also perfectly true back in April when Christie explicitly called for the prohibition of such weapons. As such, one has to ask: If the governor is honestly aware that these firearms have “reportedly never been used in a crime in New Jersey,” why did he support banning their purchase? I can think of few more callous positions to take than to agree that something isn’t harmful at all and then to ban it anyway. Indeed, Christie appears to agree with me: “We must focus on what actually works to reduce violence,” his office told MSNBC, “and not just what is politically popular or sounds good in name only.”

Considering the governor’s rotten record, that attitude is not especially convincing. Suffice it to say that if the lethality of weapons were truly the determining factor in political decision-making, the gun-controllers’ laundry list would look very different indeed. All rifles — not only those arbitrarily awarded the epithet “assault” — account for around 3 percent of gun deaths in the United States, and yet it is rifles that remain the obsession and the focus of those who ostensibly wish to reduce gun crime. They have long been Chris Christie’s focus, too. The governor not only supported the 1994 federal “assault-weapons” ban, but he did so with an unlovely zeal. While running for the state assembly in 1995, candidate Christie described those who opposed Bill Cinton’s crime bill as “dangerous,” “crazy,” and “radical” people who “must be stopped.” For good measure, he then willfully mischaracterized the soon-to-be-prohibited weapons as “automatic assault weapons,” which they were not. When the worthless federal ban expired in 2004, New Jersey retained its own version. Christie continues to support this, affirming in 2009 that he “supports all current gun laws” in New Jersey.

Christie is no better on other questions. He has consistently opposed concealed-carry laws that are now the norm in all 50 states, writing in 2009 that he “opposes attempts to permit conceal and carry laws in New Jersey,” and he recently expressed unqualified support for New Jersey’s one-gun-per-month law and called for all pending lawsuits against the rule to be “dismissed.” Until now, Christie has made no bones about his anti-gun positions. In an interview on Sean Hannity’s show in 2009, the governor was asked, “Should every citizen in your state be allowed to get a licensed weapon if they want one?” “In New Jersey, that’s not going to happen, Sean,” Christie replied. This, remember, was after the D.C. vs. Heller decision that recognized the obvious truth that the right to bear arms was an individual right.

It is unsurprising that Chris Christie concluded that to confiscate firearms from their rightful owners would be fatal to any national political ambition — after all, even moderates on the question of gun rights appear to draw the line at going around taking away people’s property. Yet what his long-term plan is precisely remains painfully unclear. He has consistently and publicly opposed The Great Liberalization that has marked gun rights over the past two decades, often in the most inflammatory of language, and has not only presided over a state with the second-strictest gun laws in the country but has unequivocally endorsed them. Likewise, his frequently expressed desire to see a new federal “assault-weapons” ban prevents Christie from credibly claiming that what he did at the state level he does not wish to do in Washington, D.C.

Whatever intentions to “mature” in office Christie might now be entertaining are hard-limited by time. He now has just three years to undo the work of almost 20; a matter of months in which to contrive a new epiphany to obscure the old record. Meanwhile, his potential rivals have big computers and long memories. Too little, too late? It certainly seems that way.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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