A task force set up by Gov. Chris Christie after last December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School recommends moderate changes to New Jersey’s gun laws, restriction of sales of violent video games and enhancement of school security programs in an effort to curb violence.
The New Jersey SAFE Task Force on Gun Protection, Addiction, Mental Health and Families and Education Safety released a set of 50 recommendations on Wednesday that it said were "aspirational in their reach and practical in their implementation."
The most awaited recommendations from the task force, chaired by former Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero and former Attorney General John Degnan, concerned further restrictions on sale, purchase and ownership of firearms.
The task force said the state’s existing gun laws are in need of some updating, but did not urge major changes. Gun control advocates concede that New Jersey already has the second most restrictive gun laws in the United States, behind only California.
"The Newtown tragedy has given a new sense of urgency to a longstanding debate on how best to prevent senseless gun violence," the task force said in its 95-page report. "Public officials and concerned citizens are rightly scrutinizing state and federal gun laws in the hope of finding the optimal balance between the need to restrict access to firearms and the right of individuals to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.
"We need to make certain, however, that new or revised gun laws are carefully vetted, and are not only well-intentioned but are actually likely to reduce the risk of gun violence."
Chiefly, the task force recommends that the state take steps to:
• outlaw "straw purchases," in which someone buys a firearm for someone who otherwise would be ineligible to own one;
• conduct background checks of gun buyers;
• screen prospective gun purchasers for mental health issues if there are signs of mental illness;
• restrict firearm ownership for those who have been committed to mental institutions;
• further enhance criminal penalties for all crimes committed with a firearm;
• require frequently updated firearm purchaser license with photographs; and
• permit gun owners to be held civilly liable if they fail to take precautions in storing their weapons and those weapons are used to kill or injure another party.
The task force said it could not reach a consensus on whether there should be further restrictions on the size of ammunition magazines, currently limited in New Jersey to 15 rounds.
As for violent video games, options are somewhat limited because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 131 S.Ct. 2729 (2011). There, the court said video games are protected by the First Amendment and struck down a California law aimed at banning the sale of certain violent video games to minors without parental supervision.
"With regard to the research studies finding a causal link between virtual violence and actual violence, the Supreme Court found that those studies were not compelling. Indeed, the Court expressed that the studies ‘do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively,’ but merely suggest some correlation and suffer from significant flaws in methodology. Thus, absent stronger proof of causation, the Court would not take video games outside of the protection of the First Amendment," the task force said.
"Thus, the current state of the law regarding violent media further informs this Task Force’s conclusion that there is currently no consensus with regard to the causal effect of violent media on real-world behavior. That said, it still appears that exposure to violent media can be a risk factor."
The task force recommends that the Legislature examine whether minors should be accompanied by an adult when buying video games with an "M," or mature, or "AO," adults only, rating, and whether merchants can require buyers to present some form of identification when purchasing M or AO video games.
Lastly, the task force said law enforcement and school boards need to take steps to ensure that individual schools are made more secure, and that law enforcement continue with efforts to reduce gang violence in urban areas.
Christie is expected to issue a set of his own recommendations, based on the report, within seven to 10 days.
Said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex: "The Assembly will certainly review this report, but one thing that’s immediately clear is that many of the themes behind the 22-bill Assembly gun violence prevention package can be found in this report.
"It’s a shame Gov. Christie didn’t openly embrace and support the Assembly package. Had he done so, those bills could have been law by now. We continue to hope the governor agrees to support the Assembly plan, along of course with any other good ideas that are being proposed by this task force."
The Senate may consider the Assembly bills in the coming weeks.
The task force’s full report is at http://nj.gov/oag/newsreleases13/NJSAFE-REPORT-04.10.13-WEB.pdf.