In Town Hall Meeting, Christie Counters Obama on Guns

After Newtown, NRA talking points won’t work for Republicans. Andrew Romano on Christie’s new course.

Mel Evans/AP

By the time Gov. Chris Christie waddled out the door of the St. Mary of the Pines parish center in Manahawkin, N.J., on Wednesday evening, he had accomplished several things.

He’d completed the 100th town-hall meeting of his tenure in Trenton.

He’d reassured nearly 800 coastal residents, most of whom had suffered some sort of setback during Hurricane Sandy, which came ashore a mere 35 miles south, that help was on the way (a long-delayed $60 billion relief package had just passed the House, with grants for rebuilding to follow).

And while he didn’t explicitly announce his intention to run for president in 2016—it’s still much too early for that, of course—he did seize on the latest gun-control developments from Washington, D.C., to display exactly how agile and formidable a candidate he might be, should he decide to toss his hat into the ring.

Turns out the New Jersey governor doesn’t think America should limit itself to a debate over “gun control.” He envisions something much more expansive than that.

“If all we do is talk about gun control, then we’re missing the point,” Christie explained. “What I’d like to have a real conversation about, and I intend to start very, very soon, is not just about gun control. That’s part of it. But it’s also about violence control.”

Three hours earlier, President Obama unveiled a sweeping new set of gun-safety measures before a crowd that included family members of those killed in December’s Sandy Hook shooting. Given public sentiment, which turned in favor of reasonable gun-safety laws after the Connecticut massacre, it appears that at least some of these initiatives will pass Congress or be implemented by executive order sometime soon.

As if in response, Christie on Wednesday signaled for the first time his intention to chart an alternative course for conservatives—one that recognizes the post–Sandy Hook political necessity of reasonable gun laws, but also tries to link the issue to the kind of broader moral arguments that Republicans have been making since Ronald Reagan’s heyday.

His announcement came in response to a question from Patricia Jones, an elderly Manahawkin resident who conceded that dune replenishment and hurricane recovery were crucial but insisted that they shouldn’t crowd out a conversation about what she called “weapons of mass destruction”—i.e., the sort of firearms used at Sandy Hook. “There were no such weapons when the Second Amendment was written,” Jones said. “Can you get the legislature in this state to go along with some real reforms, like Andrew Cuomo has just done in New York?”

Christie’s reply was fleet-footed and fascinating. First he emphasized that New Jersey already has an assault-weapons ban—and reminded the audience that he “said during my time as a prosecutor and my time as governor that I support that.” (This is true and has gotten him in some trouble with conservatives like Rush Limbaugh.) He added that he “absolutely believe[s] we have to have a continued discussion about gun control” and that he’s “happy to be part of the conversation.”

But from there Christie abandoned the Bidenesque language and instead launched into a long riff on “violence control”—a phrase he seemed to hope that other conservatives would pick up and begin to echo.

So what is violence control? In part, Christie’s vision involves improved mental-health-care system. “The young man who committed that horrific act ... he was seriously mentally ill young man,” he said. “And you have to ask yourself, what was he doing not being treated? What was he doing living in a house where his mother legally owned all those weapons? And he had access to them. His mother is dead today because he was not being treated.”

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But the governor also fingered videogames as a possible focus of his coming violence-control plan. “You also found out about [the Sandy Hook shooter that] he spent hours and hours in his basement on his PS3 or his Xbox playing games like Call of Duty: Black Ops,” Christie said. “Time after time, children are sitting there in real-life simulations murdering people with weapons, over and over. You can’t tell me that doesn’t desensitize young people to the real consequences of violence.”

The governor also hinted that he’d be addressing drugs and alcohol in his proposals. “And what do we do about substance abuse?” Christie said. “We had a young woman, a mother in Camden, high on marijuana and PCP, who decapitated her young child, then committed suicide. No gun involved.”

Christie’s message to his fellow conservatives was clear: Don’t repeat NRA talking points; most Americans aren’t far-right pro-gun zealots. But after conceding that some gun reforms are OK, pivot back to areas of GOP strength: moral issues, family values. Otherwise, Obama & Co. are going to strike the vast majority of voters as the only reasonable politicians in the room. “It’s not good for us to have a conversation about just one thing,” he concluded. “We need to discuss all of it, and that’s the conversation I’m going to be leading in the next weeks and months.”

We’ll see soon enough how Christie’s new campaign pans out. As a practical matter, regulating which games people play, which drugs they ingest, and which mental-health tests they submit to may be even harder than regulating the size of the magazines in their Glocks. But as pure politics, Christie’s position could point the way forward for Republicans at a time when the alternative—the same-old stale NRA posturing—isn’t proving to be particular popular.

And if it does, he’ll be an even brighter 2016 prospect than he is now.