Evan Nappen has waited for this moment for four decades.
A gun rights attorney from Eatontown, Nappen literally wrote the book — a tome of more than 500 pages — on New Jersey’s Byzantine firearms laws.
But his next book might be much shorter, as a looming U.S. Supreme Court decision on New York’s concealed carry laws threatens to eviscerate New Jersey’s similarly strict rules on who can carry a handgun in public. And it may open the door for further challenges to the state’s firearms statutes, some of the toughest in the nation.
“This will absolutely be a game changer,” Nappen said of the ruling, expected in the coming weeks. “The decision should open up the ability, finally, for honest, law-abiding citizens to get the unicorn of a New Jersey carry license. It’s definitely an exciting time.”
His enthusiasm is not shared by people including gun control advocates and some state officials, who say more guns will mean more shootings.
“We have among the strongest gun laws in America, and we have one of the lowest rates of gun violence in America,” acting state Attorney General Matthew Platkin told The Record and NorthJersey.com. “Any decision that strikes down or significantly restricts our requirements [for a] concealed carry permit application is going to have a significant impact on public safety. There’s no question.”
Despite these concerns, most observers think the conservative high court is likely to rule in gun activists’ favor. The only question, they said, is how far justices will go.
Will they take narrow aim at New York’s concealed carry statute and simply demand that the state and others like it lower the standards for issuing permits? Or will they take a broader approach and attack the very notion of “may-issue” states such as New Jersey, which grant local, county or state authorities the power to approve or deny concealed carry applications?
The ruling will arrive at a particularly sensitive time. The nation is reeling from an explosion in gun violence over the last two years, as well as an endless series of mass shootings, including the recent massacre at a Texas elementary school that left 19 schoolchildren and two teachers dead.
One thing is certain, said Joseph Blocher, a constitutional law scholar from Duke University who specializes in the Second Amendment. If the court strikes down New York’s law, seeing a gun strapped to a civilian’s hip will become a more common sight in the Garden State.
“It’s almost inevitable that a ruling against New York is going to mean more guns in more public places in states like New Jersey,” Blocher said.
Whether that’s good or bad depends on whom you ask.
Nappen — and many of the gun rights groups that fly similar banners — will rejoice. The decision has the potential to transform New Jerseyans from victims to defenders, he said.
“How many lives have been lost in New Jersey because law-abiding citizens were denied the right to defend themselves?” Nappen asked. “You talk about victims of gun violence — I want to know how many people are victims of gun laws that deny honest, law-abiding citizens their rights?”
But Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who pushed through a litany of new gun restrictions in his first term, is “deeply concerned about the possible implications of the New York concealed carry case,” spokesperson Alyana Alfaro said in a statement.
“We will closely review any decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said.
The governor also wants state lawmakers to pass another round of gun control bills, she said. These proposals would ban .50-caliber rifles, promote microstamping technology to help trace bullets, require safety training for gun owners and raise the minimum age to purchase long guns to 21 from 18, among other things.
Platkin, the attorney general, said he is frustrated that the Supreme Court is likely to upend centuries-old law “without any real, apparent concern for the on-the-ground impacts.”
“They don’t have to hug the family members of victims who’ve been killed by a firearm,” Platkin said. “We do. And I really struggle with an ideologically driven movement that is going to undermine public safety.”
Wide latitude to reject applications
Only California has more stringent gun laws than New Jersey, according to a 2021 report by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization dedicated to strengthening gun control laws.
New Jersey generally bars residents from carrying handguns anywhere outside their home or business without a permit. Residents can apply for a carry permit at their local police department or the New Jersey State Police, whichever covers their hometown, according to the state police website.
They must fill out a detailed application and consent to a mental health records search, state law says. And they must give written proof that they own the handgun they want to carry and are qualified to use it.
But the last hurdle is the biggest: State law demands that applicants “specify in detail the urgent necessity for self-protection, as evidenced by specific threats or previous attacks, which demonstrate a special danger to the applicant’s life that cannot be avoided by means other than by issuance of a permit to carry a handgun.”
As a “may issue” state, New Jersey allows police chiefs and the head of the state police wide latitude to reject applications. And even if they approve an applicant, a state Superior Court judge makes the final call.
Nappen, the gun rights attorney, said this string of obstacles makes it virtually impossible for a private citizen to secure a carry permit.
“You have to show that you need to use deadly force before you need to use deadly force,” Nappen said. “So essentially, if you’ve just been shot and killed, you qualify for a New Jersey carry license.”
The small number of permits issued annually reflects this.
In New Jersey, authorities approve each year an average of about 530 carry permits for private citizens and deny about 28, according to statistics provided by the state police. The permits are good for two years.
In 2022, authorities have so far approved 217 applications and denied six, the state police said.
These numbers do not include retired police officers who apply for a carry permit — those applications are processed through a different program, according to the state.
The New York case
How the justices rule in the New York case, called New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, could change everything about New Jersey’s permit process.
The case sprang from a legal challenge by two men, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, who were granted licenses to carry concealed handguns for hunting, target practice and self-defense in certain areas. But the licensing officer refused to grant them unrestricted licenses because neither man could prove he always needed a firearm on hand for self-defense, according to federal court documents.
The denial violated their Second Amendment rights, the men say. If the court decides in their favor, other may-issue states including New Jersey will likely have to rewrite their own laws, said Esther Sanchez-Gomez, senior litigation attorney with the Giffords Law Center.
That doesn’t mean states won’t be able to restrict firearms. Ironically, liberal states that embrace gun control may end up adopting the tactics used by the anti-abortion lobby to kill by a thousand cuts the ruling that granted women the right to choose.
This means chewing around the edges of any pro-gun Supreme Court decision by, for example, mandating that carry permit applicants meet objective requirements or narrowing the definition of a “public space,” Sanchez-Gomez said.
The New Jersey attorney general alluded to this during his interview, noting that state officials still have many avenues forward.
This includes passing Murphy’s gun control legislation, suing gun manufacturers and retailers, and pursuing new laws that conform to the high court’s ruling, he said.
“My goal is pretty simple: To continue this effort,” Platkin said. “We’re going to do everything we can.”
Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news about those who safeguard your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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