In challenge to N.J.’s new gun law, hearing brings more debate — but no decision
State attorneys defending New Jersey’s new gun law squared off in court Friday with gun-rights advocates urging a federal judge to issue an order blocking its enforcement on constitutional grounds.
After a four-hour, wide-ranging hearing at the Mitchell H. Cohen U.S. Courthouse in Camden, Judge Renée Marie Bumb made no decision and set a new deadline — March 27 — for both sides to file further briefs responding to unresolved questions.
At stake is the state’s sweeping new gun law, which lawmakers scrambled to pass after the U.S. Supreme Court last summer struck down New York’s concealed carry law, forcing states, including New Jersey, to relinquish requirements that gun owners prove a need to take firearms outside their home or business.
Attorneys representing gun owners spent Friday’s hearing challenging various parts of the law Gov. Phil Murphy signed in December, including its ban on guns in sensitive places like airports and parks, increased permit fees, a requirement that gun owners get liability insurance for gun accidents, and exemptions that allow judges and prosecutors to carry guns where others can’t.
They wanted a preliminary injunction that would bar enforcement of the new law as their challenge winds its way through the system.
For much of the hearing, it was tough to tell which side was winning, as Bumb pushed back on both.
When attorney Daniel Schmutter, arguing against the law, complained that police “decide ad hoc” who should be denied permits beyond barred groups like convicted felons, Bumb responded: “Are you saying the Legislature should be prescient and list out every scenario in which they say this person should not carry a firearm?”
Later, Bumb asked Deputy Solicitor General Angela Cai to define what lawmakers meant in barring guns from “transportation hubs,” but Cai offered so many caveats and uncertainties, like whether such hubs included marinas, that the judge ended her questioning with a heavy sigh.
“OK, you can understand my concern?” Bumb asked.
She seemed irked with the state Legislature, chalking up confusion about various parts of the law as “indicative of legislation that was not clearly thought out.” In one discussion about permit renewal, she and the attorneys turned to the language of the law to discern its meaning — but still couldn’t agree.
“Is it the court’s problem? Is it the Legislature’s problem? I think it’s the latter,” Bumb said. “I don’t know the answer. But my guess is, neither does the state.”
The Bruen test
In the New York ruling known as Bruen, the U.S. Supreme Court justices established a new test for Second Amendment cases, focused on whether there’s a historic precedent for the regulation in contention.
So Friday, the opposing attorneys spent much of the hearing trying to show why history dating back to the colonial era was on their side — or why it shouldn’t necessarily carry the weight Bruen afforded it. Cai pointed to other constitutionally protected civil rights, like voting, that historically were only granted to white men.
The Bruen decision also dismissed New York officials’ attempt to ban guns in crowded places, saying areas like Manhattan essentially are one sprawling, crowded place. Schmutter applied that logic to some of New Jersey’s sensitive place prohibitions.
“All airports really are, are crowded places,” he said.
Attorney Edward Kologi represents Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. He sent grumbles through the courtroom, where gun rights advocates filled the spectator benches, just minutes after he began talking.
“Guns only have two functions – to kill or to seriously injure,” Kologi said.
That prompted a testy retort from the judge.
“You forgot the right to self-defense,” Bumb said.
She added: “You’re saying when there’s more guns, there’s more violence. That’s the analysis you want to engage in. But that’s not the record before me. We’re talking about law-abiding citizens who obtain permits. You’re asking this court to presume that those who have valid carry permits will somehow engage in violence, and that is a step taken too far.”
Schmutter insisted Bruen backs unlimited right to carry, and his colleague David Jensen, another attorney who argued against the new law in court Friday, predicted appeals up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The state’s position is fundamentally: We don’t like Bruen … New Jersey says: We don’t like guns,” Schmutter said. “But the Supreme Court says you can’t do that.”
After four hours, the attorneys weren’t done. But Bumb was. She directed them to submit further arguments in 10-page briefs within a week — which she extended to March 27, when one attorney asked for extra time because of a scheduled vacation.
She agreed — and smiled as she brought up the impatience that drove the Attorney General’s Office earlier this month to threaten to appeal her temporary restraining orders on the new law.
“I don’t want the state to tell me I’m taking too long,” she said.