Seven years ago, Essex County took a new, and at the time, novel step in confronting gun violence — compelling gun manufacturers who sell arms to local police departments to detail how they are fighting back against illegal gun trafficking and keeping guns out of the hands of unlicensed users. The message: Don’t do that and you don’t get a contract with the county.
Behind the initiative was Brendan W. Gill, an Essex County commissioner at-large from Montclair.
With gun violence a persistent problem — particularly in Newark — Essex County Commissioner President Wayne L. Richardson named Gill this week to head a new Anti-Gun Violence Committee. In a state that already has among the most stringent gun regulations in the country, this new effort, Gill said, was born out of frustration with what he called “the total lack of action at the federal level.”
“We have a high rate of gun violence in Essex County, but this is a national public health crisis,” Gill said. “The committee is one step. What more can we do at the local level?”
The creation of the committee comes a month after Gov. Phil Murphy strengthened New Jersey’s gun regulations — already ranked by anti-gun groups and the NRA as among the most stringent in the country. In all, the governor signed into law seven new bills to complement the state’s universal background checks.
Perhaps the most significant new legislation allows the state attorney general to sue the firearms industry. At the same time, the governor’s actions increased jail sentences for people convicted of buying gun parts in order to construct weapons without serial numbers. And while training to get a permit had already been required, gun owners must now take a safety course
The new panel, Gill said, will reach out to other states for ideas, hold hearings with gun safety experts, and determine what additional legislation could help temper the prevalence of guns that continues to afflict the county. Shootings have ticked down slightly in recent months, but Essex County still has the highest rate of gun deaths in the state, according to recent data from the New Jersey State Police.
Studies show that Newark has benefited from an investment of $19 million into new approaches, including an increased emphasis on community policing. Still, swaths of the city continue to be wracked with gun violence. Five separate shootings in a single weekend last month left two dead and seven others wounded. And on the Fourth of July, nine people were injured in a drive-by shooting.
“No part of the county, no part of the state is immune,” Gill said. “We have a problem with illegal guns on our streets. We’ve taken important steps, but progress is slow.”