A federal judge ruled on Monday that a central component of a new law that limited where handguns may be carried in New Jersey was unconstitutional, severely undercutting the state’s effort to create gun-free zones in public places where crowds gather.
In a sharply worded decision, Judge Renée Marie Bumb of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey concluded that a half-dozen restrictions in the legislation, adopted less than three weeks ago, were “so extensive and burdensome” that they rendered the right to “armed self-defense in public a nullity.”
New Jersey, like New York, established an extensive list of places where handgun owners were not permitted to carry weapons in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June that loosened restrictions on carrying guns in public.
Judge Bumb’s order at least temporarily blocks New Jersey from enforcing much of the new law, and immediately permits licensed handgun owners to carry weapons in nightclubs, theaters, arenas, concert halls, racetracks and museums, among other places, pending further court action.
“As plaintiffs lament, the challenged provisions force a person permitted to carry a firearm in New Jersey to ‘navigate a veritable minefield,’” wrote Judge Bumb, who was nominated to the lifetime position in 2006 by President George W. Bush.
“The court knows of no constitutional right that requires this much guesswork by individuals wanting to exercise such right,” she added.
Portions of the law that were not challenged in court, including rules that make it illegal to carry weapons into schools, day care centers and hospitals, remain in place.
But Monday’s decision underscores the difficulty facing states hoping to preserve strict handgun laws in the wake of the Supreme Court case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which upended decades of policy.
Legislation that lawmakers in Albany adopted soon after the Bruen decision is also facing multiple court challenges. In October, a federal judge in New York similarly concluded that parts of the law were unconstitutional. But, unlike in New Jersey, New York’s legislation remains fully in effect as it wends through the legal process.
New Jersey’s attorney general, Matthew J. Platkin, noted that the ruling was not a final order and would be appealed.
“We are disappointed by the court’s ruling, which is inconsistent with the Second Amendment and will make New Jerseyans considerably less safe,” Mr. Platkin said. “But this temporary order is just that: temporary.”
Judge Bumb’s order also unraveled provisions in the New Jersey law that made it illegal to transport an unsecured, loaded handgun in a vehicle or carry one into any private establishment that had not posted signs explicitly stating that weapons were permitted.
Her ruling was pointed, rejecting the state’s claim that blocking portions of the law would “short-circuit the democratic process.”
“The state has had six months since Bruen to identify well-established and representative historical analogues,” she wrote, referring to a standard set by Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court who wrote for the majority in a 6-to-3 decision.
“Their dragging of feet is evidence that no such historical tradition and evidence exists,” she added.
She also wrote that the state had “presented no historical support to permit New Jersey to restrict concealed carry in bars and restaurants where alcohol is served.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Philip D. Murphy stressed that most elements of the law — including limits on who can obtain handgun licenses and new gun-safety training and insurance requirements — were not affected by the decision of a “right-wing federal judge.”
“We are working closely with the attorney general’s office to correct this errant decision and to ensure that the law will be reinstated in its entirety,” the spokeswoman, Tyler Jones, said in a statement.
The decision stemmed from a challenge by four gun-rights organizations — Second Amendment Foundation, Firearms Policy Coalition Inc., Coalition of New Jersey Firearm Owners and New Jersey Second Amendment Society — and three New Jersey handgun owners.
“Clearly, New Jersey lawmakers have gone too far in crafting a law to get around the high court’s decision,” Alan M. Gottlieb, the executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation, said in a statement.
Laws in at least four other states — California, Hawaii, Maryland and Massachusetts — were also undermined by the Bruen ruling, sending legislators scrambling to adjust regulations to comport with the Supreme Court decision.
Before New Jersey adopted its revised law, for example, applicants for so-called carry permits needed to demonstrate a justifiable need for a gun in public places, a policy that eliminated most people other than law enforcement officers.
New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation, has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. In 2020, it also had the country’s third-lowest rate of gun violence deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Hawaii had the lowest rate, and Massachusetts had the second-lowest level.)
An official with Everytown Law, an organization that works to stop gun violence, said she was confident that New Jersey’s law would ultimately prevail.
“This is far from being the end of this case,” Janet Carter, senior director of appeals at Everytown Law, said in a statement. “And we’re ready to continue our fight to uphold lifesaving gun safety measures to keep everyone in New Jersey — and everyone in America — safe from gun violence.”