By Doug Steinhardt
A trio of statewide crises face New Jersey. We have the Corona virus, and the ever-changing, politically tainted executive orders that have come with it. There is unrestrained borrowing of billions, with no plan to repay it. And now, we have a surge of violent gun crime by repeat offenders across our State. While Governor Murphy basks in the artificial glow of his hollow, progressive policies, crime-guns and reoffending criminals are killing New Jersey citizens, and our Demcoratic leaders are too weak to stop it.
Mayors, police chiefs, citizens, and the press have cried out for action across New Jersey. Cities across our State are seeing surges in gun violence. The New Jersey State Police reported that fatal shootings have increased 19% and nearly 600 New Jerseyans were killed or wounded by gunshots this year alone.
On August 9, the Trentonian reported that the 24 homicides in Trenton in the past 8 months are “far higher than the 15 homicides for all of last year, and the 16 homicides the year before.” Also reported, police director Sheilah Coley told city council that her agency “made 2,284 arrests this year and identified 47 “main players” involved with “90 percent” of the crime in the city. Then on August 22, Vernetta McCray, an innocent bystander, was shot on her own front porch and became Trenton’s 26th homicide of the year. Governor Murphy gave a statement recognizing Vernetta McCray’s work with the Department of Children and Families for more than a decade, serving countless children and families in Mercer County. He said, “This tragedy is yet another reminder of the toll that senseless gun violence takes on our communities. Our prayers are with Vernetta, her family, and her loved ones at this difficult time.”
Thoughts and prayers are important, and Governor Murphy’s words were an essential kindness to the victim’s family, but the person who occupies the Office of the Governor must do more. A choice between Black Lives Matter and biased policing is a false narrative. In fact, people who live in traditionally Democratic-party-leaning communities need prosperity and safety, but efforts toward improvement largely stop at the front door of police departments. We can do more.
Much of the blame for shootings like these lay at the feet of politicians more interested in grabbing headlines than actually reducing gun crime. Despite his progressive platitudes, Governor Phil Murphy is as complicit in the failure to take definitive steps to reduce gun crime, as he is eager to take credit for his relentless attacks on legal gun owners. Murphy admits gun crime is rampant, but the Giffords Law Center, a gun control group, says NJ has the third-strictest gun laws in the nation. So, why is gun crime surging?
I looked into this question and found officials are not using existing State laws that are designed to target gangs and gun crimes. Our State criminal code includes the crime of Gang Criminality, which imposes a combined sentence of 15 – 30 years for a gang-related gun crime, instead of 5 – 10 years for the gun crime alone.
New Jersey also has three primary gun laws: Unlawful Purposes/Use, Unlawful Possession by carrying a handgun without a permit, and Community Gun. The first two are self-explanatory. The third, Community Gun, occurs when someone possesses a firearm that has been transferred among two or more persons while they’re engaged in criminal activity. Both Unlawful Possession by carrying without a permit and Community Gun possession are second-degree crimes, but one protects the public far more than the other. If offenders are convicted of Unlawful Possession (no permit), they face the same sentence of 5-10 years for any future gun crimes they commit. Whether one or one hundred offenses, it’s always the same. In stark contrast, offenders convicted of Community Gun face a 20-year term if they are charged with carrying any gun, at any time, again. Why does that matter?
Unlawful Possession of a Handgun is the favorite charge of NJ prosecutors who plea down everything from manslaughter, aggravated assault, and even attempted murder to clear a docket and move a case. The practice is ongoing. In 2017, Bayshawn Jennings was stopped in a car with three handguns and 198 decks of heroin, while facing charges connected to an earlier Trenton shooting, but he was sentenced on the charge of Unlawful Possession of a Handgun by carrying without a permit. In 2018, Yashaun Stukes-Williams took part in a shooting between gangs in the middle of the Atlantic City Expressway on a weekday afternoon. Williams was indicted for Gang Criminality, Unlawful Possession of an Assault Firearm, and Conspiracy, but he resolved the case with a guilty plea to possessing a handgun without a permit. In 2020, Davion Townsend entered guilty pleas to two handgun-related indictments in Cumberland County, one stemming from an investigation into a public gunfight captured on surveillance video. The guilty plea was to Unlawful Possession, which allows him – and so many others – to legally possess another gun and commit additional gun crimes in the future, without enhanced penalties.
How do we know there are so many cases pleaded down to Unlawful Possession? Our elected and appointed officials have more than just headlines to guide them. In New Jersey, our taxes fund N-I-B-I-N, the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network. NIBIN examiners compare shell casings at NJ shooting scenes and identify different crimes committed with the same gun. The State Police NIBIN Squad sends daily notifications to all State and county prosecutors, pointing them toward community gun and gang crimes throughout NJ. But do the county prosecutors, supervised by our state attorney general, act?
We sent Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests to all twenty-one county prosecutors in New Jersey, to find out. Nine of twenty-one prosecutors did not disclose the number of Community Gun and Gang Criminality charges in their counties (Atlantic, Cumberland, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic, and Sussex), but twelve offices did. The records reflect the following indicted gun charges during all of January 2017 through June 2019:
- 3,939 Unlawful Possession–Carrying a Handgun without a Permit
- 1,645 Unlawful Purposes/Use
- 61 Possession of a Community Gun
- 8 Gang Criminality
Some records did not include a computerized tally, and one county did not provide data for six months of 2019, so the totals are approximate. Still, of the more than 4,500 indicted gun charges 12 county prosecutors reported during a 2 ½ year period, only 61 were Community Gun – and 30 of those were filed by only two counties (Camden and Cape May). During the same time, there were only 8 charges of Gang Criminality filed and one county (Union) brought 6 of them. As for the 9 counties that refused to answer, we can ask Governor Murphy and Attorney General Grewal to run those numbers and release them for everyone to see; but now we know a clear answer to the same old question, “What more can be done?”
Charging Community Gun and Gang Criminality would save lives and remove repeat offenders from our streets, but they aren’t pursued. Rather than fight gun and gang crimes meaningfully, Murphy and his Administration let gun criminals roam free. I challenge them to stop playing politics with people’s lives and start enforcing the laws we have. Instead of ever-increasing restrictions on lawful gun ownership, direct county prosecutors to charge and prosecute New Jersey’s Community Gun law whenever a gun is possessed, received or transferred as part of a criminal enterprise or activity, and Gang Criminality whenever members of criminal street gangs threaten our communities.
Hopefully the current explosion of gun violence leads Governor Murphy and his Administration to use the Community Gun and Gang Criminality laws more, but whether it does or doesn’t, this question remains. Knowing these facts, how do we think the Murphy Administration will handle the multiple crises facing us, now and in the future? Do we have reason to believe the Governor will be forthcoming? Or effective?
New Jerseyans, each of us must ask ourselves that question – and before we vote, let’s give ourselves honest answers. While gun rights advocates and opponents may never agree on the Second Amendment’s broader application, we should all agree that crime-guns and reoffending criminals are killing our citizens, and until now, no one has proposed a plan to stop them. It’s time to do something different.
DOUG STEINHARDT is chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party (NJGOP).