DENVILLE, N.J. – Approximately 500 citizens crammed into a room at the Statehouse Annex in Trenton, N.J., for a raucous public hearing on gun-control held by the New Jersey State Assembly Committee on Law and Public Safety.
The stated purpose was to allow New Jersey citizens to comment on a package of 24 gun-control bills that have been rammed through the committee in recent weeks.
The various proposed bills aim to restrict severely or, in certain instances, to ban outright the possession of firearms in the Garden State.
While some of the bills have been modified slightly and some have been consolidated, most were voted out of committee as originally proposed.
The Feb. 13 hearing began with an unusual suggestion from the chairman that a committee vote on the proposed legislation be taken before citizens in attendance were permitted to testify.
As the hearing started, the chairman, Democratic Assemblyman Charles Mainor, told the packed hearing room, “Everyone who has applied to speak on the bills will speak at the end.”
That meant after the committee had voted, which generated howls of protest from the gallery.
Witness Helene Henkel received applause from citizens when she objected from the witness chair. She asserted Mainor’s suggested procedure of voting prior to hearing testimony would negate the First Amendment rights of citizens who had traveled to Trenton to express their views.
Assemblyman Erik C. Peterson, R-23rd District, also objected to the chairman’s tactic.
“We have a duty to make sure people are heard. … I would rather sit here and listen to what everyone has to say rather than deny them that right,” the Republican lawmaker said.
Finally, Mainor relented, agreeing to hear testimony on all the bills before the committee voted.
What transpired was a contentious seven-hour session in which dozens of Second-Amendment supporters voiced their opposition either to specific bills or to the entire package. The committee chairman held each speaker to a strict two-minute limit, enforced at times by shutting off the microphone in mid-sentence.
Despite strong public opposition, the committee, at the conclusion of a hearing that lasted from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., voted all bills to the floor of the Assembly for a vote of the full Assembly, anticipated Thursday.
During the hearing, State Police in attendance removed several citizens for what was considered disruptive behavior.
See Chairman Mainor’s opening comments:
Helene Henkel challenges Mainor’s attempt to bypass citizen comments:
Among the organizations testifying were the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, or NJ2AS, and the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, the ANJRPC.
Frank Fiamingo, president of NJ2AS, questioned the rationale behind a bill that would reduce the maximum capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, arguing the number is arbitrary.
“Why not 12, why not nine?” he asked. “Why not seven?”
Speaking also in his capacity as a board member of the National Rifle Association, attorney Scott Bach, executive director of ANJRPC, criticized a bill that would deny the right to purchase firearms to anyone on the national terrorist watch list. He argued the list is notoriously arbitrary and prone to erroneously include people.
The legislation Bach found objectionable would permit social workers and marriage counselors to place other citizen’s names on the list, potentially denying them due process, Moreover, Bach argued the procedure for clearing one’s name was poorly designed, possibly requiring citizens to travel to Washington, D.C.
Attorney Scott Bach’s testimony:
Committee member Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-15th District, countered that the process of getting a person’s name removed from the terrorist watch list to qualify for gun ownership in New Jersey would be a mere “inconvenience” when weighed against the “common good.”
Several of the ammunition-related bills were combined into one omnibus bill containing a provision to ban the purchase of ammunition over the Internet. The provision, various citizens testifying argued, would create a monopoly for in-state dealers that could limit the availability of ammunition in New Jersey, causing a large increase in the cost.
Critics pointed out a bill prohibiting the sale of ammunition in excess of .50 caliber would end up banning many hunting rifles and almost all shotguns, while doing nothing to affect the lower-caliber cartridges typically used by criminals.
Several citizens contended most of the bills were drafted in haste as an emotional reaction to the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., and the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., with insufficient consideration of potential adverse consequences for Second Amendment rights.
One witness, Nora Craig, loudly castigated Chairman Mainor for ignoring her and carrying on a sidebar conversation during her testimony.
Mainor responded, “This is my meeting,” eliciting jeers from the audience.
U.S. Navy veteran Nora Craig:
A schoolteacher, who noted she is a firearms instructor and a fourth-generation gun owner, reminded the committee that historically, firearms confiscation preceded the ascent of dictators, citing Nazi Germany and others.
In spirited testimony that drew applause from the citizens, she loudly criticized the committee for ignoring the Constitution and insisted the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School “should have had a firearm.”
Schoolteacher Carol Logan-Moore:
One of the most compelling statements came from college student Alexa Joan Macaluso, who described herself as “The Girl on Fire,” a reference to the movie “The Hunger Games.” Macaluso proceeded to read the full text of the Second Amendment, telling the committee members, “You will never, I repeat, never take my inalienable rights away,” before being cut off by the sergeant-at-arms.
Student Alexa Joan Macaluso:
Several observers concluded from the demeanor of the committee that a decision had been made by a majority of the members to vote all the bills out of committee, seemingly in complete disregard of the citizen testimony.
The New Jersey Assembly has scheduled a vote on the bills for Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern Time.
A synopsis and critique of the bills is available on the website of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs.
Additional videos have been posted on a YouTube channel.