Moving to N.J.? You can bring your gun, and you don’t have to tell the state

Aug 26, 2019

People who move to New Jersey from another state are allowed to bring their legally acquired guns with them — even if they hail from a state where firearms laws are less strict.

New residents are also not required to inform the state if they bring in lawfully acquired guns, which means state law enforcement officials may be unaware of countless new residents who have weapons.

The New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Gun control advocates say the quirk in state law is a legal loophole for gun owners from other states who may be barred from buying a firearm in New Jersey.

“New Jersey is a state with very strong gun laws and, accordingly, it has a very low gun death rate,” said Allison Anderman, senior counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “The issue is about New Jersey holding people from out of state to the same standard that they hold their own residents, especially considering that most states other than New Jersey have much weaker laws.”

New Jersey has among the strictest gun laws in the country, and Gov. Phil Murphy has vowed to tighten those laws even further. The Democrat has signed 11 gun control bills into law, including a ban on “ghost guns” and a 10-round magazine limit. Murphy also wants to increase gun permit fees.

But advocates for stricter rules around gun ownership say state law still allows new, gun-owning residents to skirt New Jersey’s application process and bear arms without the knowledge of law enforcement.

“The Murphy administration would strongly support requiring any out-of-state resident who moves into New Jersey to obtain a firearms ID card in order to lawfully possess those weapons in New Jersey,” said Bill Castner, Murphy’s senior adviser on firearms.

“It’s only fair to ask an out-of-state resident who comes into the state to go through that process and make sure that the weapons that they purchased out of state would have been lawfully purchased in New Jersey as well,” he added.

Castner suggested that a bill to overhaul the state’s process for buying guns (A-5452), which was passed by the Assembly in June, could be amended to include a requirement that new residents with guns must apply for a firearms purchaser ID card.

The legal confusion in New Jersey law stems from the fact that residents must apply for permission to purchase a gun, but they do not have to register their firearm with the state once they own it. It means that someone who has already bought a gun in another state can move to New Jersey without being subject to the Garden State’s application process. (They can only bring the gun if it is also legal in New Jersey. An assault-style weapon lawfully purchased in Pennsylvania, for example, would still be banned.)

Lawmakers have generally preferred an application at the point of sale because many gun owners and Second Amendment proponents oppose a firearms registry. Gun rights advocates suggested that forcing new residents to register their firearms with the state would be another unnecessary burden on law-abiding gun owners that did little to prevent crime.

“I’m not sure why we’d have to disclose and tell the government what we have and what we’re bringing to the state with us,” said Alexander Roubian, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society. “If the people that are going to be committing crimes and have nefarious intentions are expected to comply with the law and tell the government what they potentially have, that’s an absurd notion.”

Roubian said it’s unlikely that someone with a gun would move from another state to New Jersey to exploit the legal loophole, and that he had heard no examples from law enforcement of it ever happening.

Still, legal experts said New Jersey’s existing law leaves the door open for a person who would have been barred from buying a gun in in the state to make the purchase in another state, move to New Jersey, and lawfully possess it.

For example, New Jersey is the only state in the country that bans anyone on the federal terrorism watch list from getting a gun, according to the Giffords Law Center. “However, this is not the case in Florida,” Anderman said. “A person on the terrorist watch list can legally buy a gun in Florida and then move to New Jersey, but because of New Jersey’s laws, nothing would prevent that person from legally bringing that gun” with them.

It is unclear how many gun owners move to New Jersey each year.

Although the state does not require new residents to inform the state that they have guns, people can voluntarily register their firearms with the New Jersey State Police. The NJSP has received more than 775 voluntary registration forms since 2016, according to state data.

A state police spokesman said they don’t have an estimate on the number of guns brought in by new residents that go unregistered each year.

Although the form asks where the gun was bought, the NJSP does not track where most of the guns originated.

Yet, according to the 2017 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census, the states with the most residents who moved to New Jersey in the previous year were New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Although New York has strict gun laws, Pennsylvania’s and Florida’s laws are more lenient.

Policing experts said the fact that New Jersey does not require new residents to identify themselves as gun owners could put law enforcement officers at risk.

“It would be helpful to know if a person that the police have contact with have in their possession or own and have access to an assault weapon or a weapon that could create extreme harm to the public and the officers,” said Bill McKnight, a Stockton University professor and a former Atlantic City Police officer.

According to a report produced by the New Jersey State Police, 83% of “crime guns” recovered in the first three months of this year came from out of state.

Some states require new residents to declare their legal firearms when they establish residency. People who move to California with guns are required to fill out a form with a list of guns and their serial numbers, according to the state attorney general’s website. Anyone who brings a firearm into Hawaii must register the gun within five days.

Roubian, the Second Amendment advocate, said he encourages any new New Jersey resident who owns a gun to apply for a firearms purchaser ID card anyway because it is required to buy ammunition.