A gun control bill landed on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s desk on July 2, the same day that two parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, took to the Trenton State House to try to convince him to sign it.
When Christie vetoed the bill instead—not even blinking at the pleas from the victims’ families—he sent a message to conservatives and gun-rights groups that he is still a viable contender for the 2016 Republican nomination. Christie will arrive in Nashville this week for the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association—for which he serves as chairman—with renewed credibility as a right-wing powerhouse. After all, who but a conservative, gun-rights stalwart, unwavering in his principles, would be capable of appearing so unmoved by a father holding up a picture of his murdered son?
Undercutting Christie’s perceived tough guy act, however, is his record. In office and as a candidate for office, he has been anything but the kind of Second Amendment advocate who conservatives want to call their own. And his moderate stance on guns—including his history as an assault weapon-ban evangelist—opens him up to charges of inauthenticity.
“Most people in the Second Amendment arena don’t believe him, because he’s been on both sides of the issue,” Richard Merkt, a former running mate of Christie’s, told The Daily Beast. “I think, in his core belief system, he is not a supporter of the Second Amendment... Anything he says in favor of the Second Amendment or in favor of a Second Amendment issue may not sound like it really comes from the heart, because I don’t think it does.”
Mark Barden’s 7-year-old son, Daniel, and Nicole Hockley’s 6-year-old son, Dylan, were two of 20 children killed by Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter. On that December day in 2012, he used a Model XM15-E2s .233-caliber semiautomatic rifle with a 30-round magazine.
The parents wanted Christie to sign a bill which would have lowered the cap on ammunition magazines from 15 to 10—and they were not alone. They brought with them 55,000 signatures from people across the country—including 10,000 from the Garden State—which they dropped off at the Governor’s office, where they said they were told he was not available to meet with them. (A source close to the Christie administration said that the governor was simply not in the State House at the time the meeting was requested, but in a press conference, he said he didn’t take the meeting because he had already signed the veto.) News of Christie’s veto came barely an hour later.
There are only eight states that have a cap on the size of magazines, and most of those caps, like in New York and Connecticut, are 10 rounds. By way of explanation, Christie called the measure “reform in name only,” assuring that it would not reduce future instances of mass violence. Instead, he said, he wanted to focus on the root of gun violence--mental health. “I will not support such a trivial approach to the sanctity of human life, because this is not governing. Governing is confronting problems.”
A spokesperson for Christie, Kevin Roberts, told The Daily Beast, “the Governor believes and has consistently stated that we must act to prevent the types of horrible tragedies suffered by having effective gun control laws in place while addressing the underlying causes of violence.”
The parents branded Christie’s “refusal” to meet with them “a cowardly political move” and his reasons for vetoing the measure “a blow to the memories of our children.” Trivial, the word Christie used to describe the proposed reform, grated particularly hard: “Limiting the number of bullets loaded into a gun is not ‘trivial’--we know that smaller magazines would have saved more lives at Sandy Hook Elementary, possibly even the lives of our own children.” Christie has dismissed charges that the veto was politically motivated.
A few days after the veto, Christie was in Keansburg, an already-broken down beach town beat into submission by Hurricane Sandy, for an announcement unrelated to guns. But the issue followed him there.
Asked by a reporter about the veto, he was unrepentant: “So are we saying then that the 10 children, on the clip that they advocate for, that their lives are less valuable? If you take the logical conclusion of their argument, you go to zero, because every life is valuable. And so why 10? Why not six? Why not two? Why not one? Why not zero? Why not just ban guns completely?”
He continued: “I feel extraordinary sympathy for [the Sandy Hook families] and the other families and all of the families across America who are the victims of gun violence,” but, he said, they have fundamental differences when it comes to magazine caps. “I’ve read a lot on this issue and I made the decision that I made.”
And a media spotlight highlighted that decision--and the unapologetic attitude accompanying it.
On MSNBC, Christie was called “chicken-something, which I won’t say on the air. There is a second word,” by Joe Scarborough, once the governor’s public advocate, for not meeting with the Sandy Hook victims. “How about being humane?” Scarborough asked, before teeing off on Christie’s explanation for the veto: “When you start going down this path of having to defend the indefensible, these are the silly things that come out of your mouth.” Rachel Maddow also slammed the veto, arguing that Christie is “testing the bounds of what can be called shameful” by “calling out parents of murdered kids.”
But online and in print, the veto earned praise from the right wing. The Tea Party News Network applauded the move: “As America geared up for celebrating our Independence Day, New Jersey governor Chris Christie did something very American: he stood up to gun-grabbing tyrants.” The CEO of Pro Gun New Hampshire told the Star-Ledger, “I think it’s a step in the direction for Governor Christie.” The National Review published an op-ed titled, “Chris Christie Was Right Not To Meet With the Parents of Sandy Hook,” which branded him “brave.”
Yet Christie’s history on guns does not suggest he is the severe conservative that refusing to cave to pressure and public shaming from the parents of slain young children would suggest he is--a non-issue in the Garden State, where voters lean left and gun violence plagues urban areas (in Trenton, 31 of 37 violent murders in 2013 were shootings)--but potentially a very big problem in states vital to a presidential campaign.
Christie’s first two campaigns were run on his support of New Jersey’s assault weapons ban, in place since 1990, which includes the 15-round magazine cap.
In April 1993, the future governor (then just a lawyer) announced he would run for the State Senate. He told the Star-Ledger, “The issue which has motivated me to get into this race is the recent attempt by certain Republican legislators to repeal New Jersey’s ban on assault weapons...In today’s society no one needs a semiautomatic assault weapon...We already have too many firearms in our communities.” Christie said that while he absolutely supported the right to bear arms, he would prevent any “weakening” of existing gun laws. The campaign only lasted a week.
In 1995, Christie, while serving as a county Freeholder, mounted a campaign for the State Assembly. He teamed up with Richard Merkt, then a legislative aide, to give running on assault weapons another go. Today, Merkt says that he just “went along” with Christie on the issue. Team Christie, he told The Daily Beast, “took control of that whole process.” The process including distributing mailers attacking the duo’s two main opponents, the vulnerable incumbent, Anthony Bucco, and a prominent conservative voice in the district, Michael Patrick Carroll. The mailers deemed repealing the ban on automatic assault weapons “dangerous,” “crazy,” and “radical.”
“He was basically kind of mocking the Second Amendment people,” Merkt said. “I think he thought the Second Amendment issue was kind of a joke, and was not significant.”
Christie and Merkt lost, with Christie coming in fourth place.
As the U.S. Attorney, Christie addressed gun violence by locking up gang members like The M.O.B. Boys, Double ii Bloods, and Raymond Morales, and forming the Camden Violent Crime Initiative, which aimed to target crimes using firearms for prosecution and “expedite firearm identification efforts.”
Once governor, Christie vowed to “strictly enforce” New Jersey’s existing gun laws, which are “some of the most aggressive in the country.” In 2012, “as part of the Christie Administration’s focus on illegal weapons,” according to a press release, the Attorney General’s office cracked down, arresting 406 people and seizing 76 guns. And the administration participates in gun buyback programs, which have removed thousands of weapons from the street.
After Sandy Hook, Christie called for “a large, national discussion...and gun control has to be part of it, too.” Following the shooting, Democrats in the legislature sent 17 different gun control bills to Christie’s desk--10 of which he signed, including one to increase the penalty for illegally providing a gun to someone underage, and one which upgraded some unlawful gun ownership to a first-degree crime.
When then-National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre responded to the tragedy by calling for armed guards in schools, Christie publicly disagreed, saying, “If you just have an armed guard at the front door [of the school], then what if this guy had gone around to the side door? There’s many doors in and out of schools.”
Christie also slammed a “reprehensible” 2013 ad made by the NRA, which featured President Obama’s daughters. “Don’t be dragging people’s children into this...It’s wrong and I think it demeans [the NRA] and makes them less of a valid trusted source of information on the real issues that confront this debate.”
Reflecting on Christie’s history on guns since their ill-fated ’95 campaign, Merkt offered that even though he has himself evolved on the issue to be a guns-rights advocate, he doesn’t believe the gov has real credibility.
“He will say whatever he thinks is necessary and expedient at the time, depending on the audience that he's addressing. And right now, he knows that he has to try to resuscitate his appeal to the conservative base of the party,” Merkt said. “He's been seriously damaged by Bridgegate and the various other missteps, and if he wants to have any chance to resuscitate himself as a presidential candidate, he has got to not offend the various conservative interests that are out there.”
(A spokesman for Christie, Kevin Roberts, responded to Merkt’s comments, saying: “I’m not concerned with the hit-and-run commentary from those who are clearly uninformed about the Governor’s record.”)
Carroll was kinder, shrugging that “you can only take a person at his word.” But he acknowledged the political problem at hand: “Are there people who are never willing to accept a conversion? Yes. Will it be an issue that, perhaps, will cause him to explain? Yes.”
Rick Shaftan, a Republican political consultant who worked on Carroll’s 1995 campaign, told me, “I don’t think Chris Christie believes in anything,” but, “how’s the guy going to possibly run for president endorsing gun control?”