- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey has some of the toughest gun laws in the country and a stringent firearms ban on domestic abuse suspects that’s been in place since the 1990s, but a contentious debate recently erupted over whether the law could be stronger.

Democrats and victims’ advocates pushed for tougher rules to ensure suspects quickly surrender their guns. But Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, vetoed the measure, saying the bill would add little muscle to an already powerful statute. The more pressing issue for Christie was ensuring that domestic abuse victims can more quickly get guns for protection.

The debate comes as more than a dozen states have strengthened laws over the past two years to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, a rare area of consensus in the nation’s highly polarized debate over guns.

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NEW JERSEY GETS AN A-

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives the state an A- and ranks it third for strong gun laws, which include permit requirements for handguns. And the rules for stripping guns from domestic abusers were established years before many other states.

Domestic violence reports involving guns occur at a relatively low rate. The state’s most recent domestic violence report recorded 141 incidents involving a gun in 2013, less than 1 percent of New Jersey’s 65,000 recorded domestic violence incidents that year.

Between 2006 and 2014, 83 people were killed with guns in New Jersey by spouses, ex-spouses or dating partners, according to an analysis of FBI data by The Associated Press.

Current New Jersey law bans gun possession among anyone convicted of domestic violence crimes or who has a restraining order filed against them. Police can confiscate guns from suspects when they respond to domestic violence calls and judges have the power to order the search and seizure of weapons if suspects fail to surrender them.

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ADVOCATES WANT MORE CONSISTENCY

Victims’ advocates say the law could be better. A bill introduced last year would have put more of the burden on the suspect, ordering them to immediately surrender firearms instead of possibly waiting for a judge’s order.

The change may seem small, but it would lead to more consistency among law enforcement agencies, said Nicole Morella, director of public policy and communications for the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

“Some departments are more immediate in collecting weapons, whereas some notify the suspect that they have to surrender firearms, but they don’t follow up,” she said. “We’ve definitely had cases where individuals were able to maintain their firearms.”

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CHRISTIE: VICTIMS SHOULD HAVE GUNS

Christie conditionally vetoed the bill, stating that it “substantially restates New Jersey’s existing laws.” He called for higher penalties for domestic abusers and wants the state to cut down on wait times for victims who’ve applied for gun permits.

Christie and a commission he created on gun purchasing and permitting the night before declaring his presidential run have cited last year’s killing of Carole Bowne in Berlin. She had been waiting for weeks for a gun permit when an ex-boyfriend stabbed her to death. She had filed a restraining order against him and had checked her permit’s status two days before her death.

Steven Kaplan, a New Jersey divorce attorney who often focuses on domestic violence matters, said he doubts either of the proposals would have much of an impact. He’s also concerned that Christie’s proposal would turn “the heavily populated state of New Jersey into the new Wild West.”

Kaplan said the current law “has served victims of domestic violence in New Jersey well over the years.”

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