Laws from Trenton only Slightly less crappy than Gun Laws from Washington

By now you’ve learned the U.S. Senate didn’t pass a basic universal background check for firearms purchasers. Not even for folks in the market for Bushmaster’s infamous AR-15 “assault-style” semi-automatic rifle.  That’s the weapon of choice for today’s mass-murdering psychopath, by the way.  The big “Nay” vote on Capitol Hill came despite a stream of polls showing over 90% of Americans in support of reasonable background checks on those who wish to acquire these and other deadly weapons.

“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”

Recently, my nephew and niece came to Cherry Hill for a visit. I got their favorite junk food, toys and books to make the trip extra special.  The previous December, after watching A Christmas Story, Santa brought my 9-year-old nephew a BB gun.  It was his favorite toy so I figured, why not? What could go wrong?  I had a BB gun at his age and grew up to become a gun-skeptic liberal. Maybe the same would happen with my nephew, I reasoned to myself while stocking up on kid-friendly cereal at the grocery store.  And with Dick’s Sporting Goods Store right next door it wasn’t hard to just pop on over and pick one up! Brilliant!

While strutting into the “Outdoor” section of Dick’s, convinced I’m the coolest uncle in the world, I quickly noticed a BB gun marketed for girls.  A hot-pink little number, it stood out among the bright orange and camo-colored hunting gear.  Why not get one for my niece as well?   I’m all about equality, right?  And irony. I still have to chuckle at the thought.

Not so fast there, partner.

“You’ll need a license for that,” the clerk informed me when I asked to see a modestly-priced BB gun.  Surprised but undaunted, I whipped out my drivers license and slid it across the counter.  At which point it was obvious to me that it was obvious to him I’m not a gun person. 

“To buy a gun in New Jersey you need a Firearm Purchaser ID Card from your Township’s police chief.  Even a BB gun.  Can’t even take one down to show you without it.”

For better or worse, there would be no BB gun that day. Not for me anyway. Without a comprehensive criminal background check first I couldn’t buy one. I couldn’t even look at one. Not even a pink one.  

But it’s just a toy I thought, my cool-uncle strut quickly vanishing.

By the time I reached my car, I was actually a little bit mad. It seems the only thing I fancy less than guns is being told I can’t have a gun.  I decided then and there as a matter of pride that I couldn’t go another day without a Firearm ID and drove straight to the Cherry Hill police station to make it happen.  Nothing was gonna stop this drama queen from getting that damn pink BB gun.  

Some hurdles make perfect sense.  Others seem deliberatively provocative. 

The application for a NJ Firearms Purchaser ID Card is long, needlessly arbitrary and (ultimately) ineffective. 

Some questions seemed reasonable:  Was I a felon?  Do I currently have a drug or alcohol problem? No and no. Easy enough.  

Other queries, while logical, felt a bit more invasive: have I ever struggled with drugs or alcohol at any point in the past? Yes, I was in rehab a dozen years ago (a fact I must reveal or risk perjury.)   Also, can I provide three references to vouch for my mental health and psychological stability?  Um sure.  What ‘s a few secrets between me and the Government?   But seriously, why not ask my doctor?   Wouldn’t that be a more sensible way to determine my mental fitness versus contacts I curate for you? 

For reference, I chose my retired USMC Dad, a neighbor and a friend, each of whom wrote the Police Chief stating my fitness to purchase a firearm.  I basically told them what to write because they asked for guidance, I told them to tell the truth.  But what’s to keep someone (ahem, “a bad guy with a gun,” perhaps) from lying?  As if someone willing to commit mass murder cares about perjuring himself. 

Pressing my case. 

The finger-printing portion of the process was an ordeal unto its own.  

First of all, the Cherry Hill Police didn’t do it on site, I’d have to make an appointment in two weeks to get my prints done elsewhere at some for-profit private business.  Meanwhile I’m asking myself why do I have to pay some private company $57.50 to get my prints taken across town when they could just do it for free there at the station?  Since when do cops not take finger prints?  Besides, in two weeks my niece and nephew will be back in Texas so it’s all a moot point. Right?  Hell no. I was pretty dug in by then. 

Put me and my fingerprints on the schedule, I told the Chief!  Besides it was gonna take me that long to get my references all signed, sealed and delivered.  I may not end up purchasing a gun I recall thinking.  But I am gonna get the license to purchase one.

Two weeks later I got my prints taken, alongside a waiting room full of parolees and dead beat dads. I know this because I heard them discussing their, um, status when they checked in after me.  

Lovely. I’m there to comply with the law while everyone else is there because they broke the law.  What’s wrong with this picture?  It’s a wonder I didn’t walk out of there with a complex about Government overreach.  Like someone was coming to snatch the guns I don’t even really want.  It’s probably my own irrational snobbery, but it all kinda made me feel like a little bit less of a citizen.

Suddenly I caught a big whiff of whatever it is that make gun nuts so, well, nutty. 

All this for the very same toy BB gun I had as a 6-year-old.

All in all, it took 4 1/2 weeks before my firearm permit finally arrived in the mail.  I was surprised it didn’t include a picture, which seemed curious, given the paces applicants are put through. I hadn’t planned to buy the BB gun, but now felt compelled to test the new ID see if they’d ask for a license (or something with a photo) as well.  They didn’t.  I could’ve been anybody. I think I started banging my head on the counter at that point. 

But that’s what it’s like to get a gum permit in Chris Christie’s New Jersey.  In fairness, many of our goofy gun laws preceded his administration. But Christie’s been in office over three years and he’s supposed to be getting the government out of our lives, right?  (Note to Marco Rubio and Rand Paul: feel free to cite me in your oppo research.) 

“A hot mess”

Based my limited experience, it seems like when gun laws are written (mostly) by liberals (like me) who don’t feel connected to gun culture you might end up with a hot-mess-of-a-law that makes it needlessly complicated for law-abiding tax-payers who wish to comply with the rules to acquire a gun for any non-crazy reason.  That’s our current model in New Jersey.  Our model which I believe is broken.

On the other hand, the gun laws coming out of Washington DC are dictated by the NRA to conservative handmaidens in the House and Senate who are beholden to tea party whack jobs primary voters and the gun lobby. The idea of some deranged lunatic assembling a deadly cache in a McDonald’s parking lot is chilling and infuriating.  With 40% of firearm transactions happening off the grid (via straw purchasing, for example,) it’s simply too easy for stupid people to get guns in America.  And we have the NRA and Republicans in Congress to blame for it. 

And that’s why, despite the Senate stalemate, we must work for a more robust universal background check for anyone in any state who chooses to purchase a firearm.  We don’t need another (Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Tucson, et al) to prove why background checks are so critical.  

I just hope the national model for firearms screening won’t follow New Jersey’s reactionary template.  

"I’m an undertaker by trade, so when I bury somebody, they don’t come back."
—Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato