TRENTON — New Jersey Democrats have an election-year issue that could make Gov. Chris Christie squirm — but they've been too divided so far to use it to their advantage.
It's gun control, which stirred up passions after a December school shooting in Connecticut left 26 children and educators dead, then exacerbated the partisan divide in Washington when the Senate voted against expanded background checks for gun buyers.
Christie's re-election challenger, the mostly unknown Sen. Barbara Buono, is now trying to make gun laws an issue in the governor's race, hoping to push the popular Republican into uncomfortable territory as he seeks re-election in his blue-leaning home state while stoking national ambitions to become the 2016 GOP presidential nominee.
"It's a legitimate issue," Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky said. "It's not just politically smart, but it's morally the right thing to do. Most New Jerseyans would agree in light of the Sandy Hook tragedy. The problem with Democrats is they can't get on the same page."
Buono, who is trailing Christie by about 30 points in early public opinion polls, could see a boost if Democrats were united on gun control, Roginsky said. While guns are not a make-or-break issue in the election, gun laws matter to women and independent voters, two key constituencies. The issue could also help Buono define herself as a candidate.
"The governor is hopeful it never gets to his desk; then he doesn't have to make a decision on it," said political scientist Patrick Murray, of Monmouth University. "If it doesn't get posted (in the Legislature), he's off the hook."
Christie's luck has held out so far. On major issues of his first term, which have included enacting pension and health benefits reforms and taming high property taxes, the governor has been able to score political victories by taking advantage of divides within the state Democratic Party and partnering with the Democratic Senate president.
The debate over stricter gun laws has played out the same way so far.
Soon after the Connecticut shootings, it became clear that Christie would be performing a high-wire act to find middle ground between New Jerseyans' views on gun control and those of GOP primary voters across the country. The state Assembly identified holes in the state's already stringent gun laws and fast-tracked 22 bills through their house in February that would, among other things, limit high-capacity magazines to 10 rounds, the same as President Barack Obama proposed at the federal level. The idea is that with fewer bullets, shooters will have to reload more often, giving potential victims precious seconds to escape.
The typically outspoken governor refused to take a position on the federal proposal, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver sought to force his hand by putting bills on his desk to sign or veto.
But Senate President Stephen Sweeney didn't move the Assembly bills. When he unveiled his own gun control package last week, it didn't address limiting the number of bullets in ammunition magazines.
"This is why Sweeney's leadership comes up short in terms of leading the state party," Montclair University political scientist Brigid Harrison told the website PolitickerNJ last week. "We are seeing a very conservative position articulated by a leader of one of the chambers in defiance of the national party's position, most voters' position, most Democrats' position and most Democratic legislators' positions."
Buono's gun control plan includes the magazine limit. Two other Democrats, Sens. Loretta Weinberg and Nia Gill, recently introduced a 10-round limit bill, but it's separate from Sweeney's package and not clear whether the Senate president will post it for a hearing.
Buono's plan, announced last week after the senator met with several parents of the Connecticut shooting victims, also includes requiring face-to-face ammunition sales and mandating renewal of firearm ID cards every two years. Her plan also requires firearms safety training to get a purchaser ID, bans weapons greater than .50 caliber and closes a background check loophole by requiring that most firearm sales and transfers go through licensed dealers.
Christie announced his gun control proposals last month, following the recommendations of an anti-violence task force he commissioned after the Connecticut shootings. His measures include expanding government-funded mental health treatment, requiring parental signoff before children can buy or rent violent video games, and mandating that ID presented by would-be gun-owners is government-issued.
The Republican's plan also includes a ban on the sale of Barrett .50-caliber semi-automatic sniper rifles, bail reforms that would make it harder for people suspected of violent gun crimes to be released, and provisions to make it easier for courts and health care professionals to involuntarily commit people they consider violent to a psychiatric hospital.