The Jersey Politician Fighting to Make Guns Safer and Smarter
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg has been trying to get smart guns in the state for 15 years. With technology improving—and Christie retiring—it might actually happen.
New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg has traveled a long way in her advocacy for smart guns. She was first approached about the idea 15 years ago by Jake Locicero, the father of a young woman, Amy Federici, who died at the hands of a crazed gunman in the 1993 Long Island train massacre, which killed now retired Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s husband, injured her son, and propelled her to run for Congress.
“He asked me if I ever heard of a smart gun. I said no. I conjured up a gun that fired itself,” Weinberg recalled. Locicero explained that the emerging technology would lock a gun to all but its owner, lessening the chance that a stolen weapon could be turned on innocent victims.
Weinberg was sold on the idea, and with help from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, she put together legislation, the Childproof Handgun Law of 2002. It said that once “personalized handguns are available,” and the Attorney General in New Jersey certifies they meet the standard for any firearm, within three years, they would be the only kind of handgun one could buy in New Jersey.
Weinberg told the Daily Beast she thought the mandate was “quite reasonable.” But instead of spurring the development of smart gun technology, which was the goal, it resulted in a backlash from gun enthusiasts, freezing any innovation. “Much to my chagrin, the law was adopted by the NRA and the Second Amendment people as to why we should never develop a smart or child proof gun,” Weinberg said.
It took a while for her to come to terms with the fact that her legislation, which was signed into law, had actually stalled progress on smart guns because it provoked such an enormous backlash. Two years ago, she made what she regarded as an extraordinary admission. “I announced on national TV if the NRA and Second Amendment folks would come forth and say they will not stand in the way of the development of smart guns, I would work to repeal the law.”
She kept her word, and the New Jersey legislature, controlled by Democrats, passed a new law saying that retailers would have to offer one smart gun model for sale once the technology was available but could continue to stock conventional guns. “It’s the first time to undo something I did,” she said in an interview, still sounding a bit surprised.
Weinberg has been in the legislature since 1992, and Senate majority leader since 2005, and she doesn’t back down from the big fights. She played a key role in bringing the Fort Lee lane closure scandal to light, and has often tangled with Governor Christie. “If Chris Christie had given out veto pens, I would have a much larger collection of pens for the last seven years,” she boasts.
She pushed through the new bill that removed the mandate, and a gun seller in Maryland got big play on You Tube, she recalls: “He was right out of central casting. He had a bracelet smart gun for sale, and they (gun rights enthusiasts) came at him so hard he was sitting in his store all night long, afraid they would come and burn his store down. He was sitting there with a bottle of Jim Beam, and drinking. He ended saying he would take it (smart gun) off the shelf and never again sell smart guns.”
Christie vetoed the bill that would have smoothed the way for smart guns. But with Christie leaving office in January 2018, the expectation is that the legislature will re-pass the bill and a new Democratic governor, former Goldman Sachs financier and Ambassador to Germany, Phil Murphy, who’s comfortably ahead in polls, will sign it. Of course nothing is guaranteed in politics, but Christie leaves behind, in MSNBC host Chris Matthews’ memorable phrase, a very big bathtub ring that is likely to discredit any Republican successor.
At a “Law Enforcement and Smart Guns Symposium” in Washington DC last month organized by Ralph Fascitelli, board president of Washington (State) Ceasefire, advocates included former U.S. Border Control Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, and renowned German gun maker ErnstMauch, whose chief claim to fame is that he designed the gun that killed Bin Laden.
Kerlikowske recalled serving as police chief in Fort Pierce, Florida, when the crack cocaine epidemic was raging. One officer, a member of a SWAT team, was shot 13 times and killed with his own gun. “Ever since that, I thought how can we make the occupation of law officer safer,” he said, praising the advent of more secure holsters, police radios, and body armor. He recalled having his personal firearm stolen from his vehicle. “It troubles me after many, many years to this day,” he said.
As Border Commissioner, Kerlikowske operated predator drones. One went down in the ocean. They cost $12 million each, he said. “I never received a call from anyone about dropping a $12 million drone,” but with 40,000 personnel reporting to him, he said, any loss of even a small number of guns would raise alarm bells on Capitol Hill. “It would be great if I could tell people, they’re lost or stolen, but they can’t be used by anyone,” he said.
What is the future of smart gun technology? “That’s why I’m here,” said Mauch, who plunged into smart gun development after a gun made by his then company, Heckler & Koch, was fired by a six-year-old in California, killing his friend. Mauch recalled spending over four hours with an American judge in 2002, who was weighing culpability. “I had no real answers,” Mauch said. “The gun was working well. But it’s a dumb piece of metal and plastic. ... I came home to my wife and said, now is the time to do intelligent guns.”
His initial offering failed in the marketplace—too expensive, uncertain technology, and hobbled by the New Jersey law. He is in the United States looking for investors. Weinberg reports that Mauch is close to putting into production an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) gun that would meet the current standards of the Glock 19.
Smart gun advocates say technology can reduce gun violence by 25 percent. They point out that 1.7 million children live in a home with an unlocked gun, an accident waiting to happen. A thousand guns are stolen every day, potentially used to inflict bodily harm, and “gun grabs” are a major concern for corrections officers and police on the beat.
Reducing gun violence through technology should be the American way, but the path has been fraught. “I have been involved in all kinds of issues that are emotional,” says Weinberg, now 82, citing her years of championing women’s right to choose. “This issue has been the most difficult,” she said. Thanks to her admission she was wrong in originally seeking a mandate, she can now declare with some confidence, “I know the road we opened up is not for naught.”