Lawsuit: Finally Change NJ’s Super-Strict Gun Carry Rules
Israel Albert Almeida, a retired EMT who worked with the Newark SWAT team, now makes a living managing rental properties. In 2013, he says, he started getting death threats after evicting a gangbanger from a Newark apartment.
That year, Almeida applied to his hometown Andover Police Department for a permit to carry a gun.
Sussex County resident Michael Tumminelli works for the Defense Department. He trains military units on emerging technologies and is entrusted with what he describes as highly classified documents.
The department doesn't issue guns to civilian workers, but Tumminelli can legally carry his personal weapon in 36 states. In 2015, after ISIS threatened to go after U.S. military personnel, he tried to add New Jersey to that list by applying to Newton police for a permit.
Their applications, however, were denied — first by local police departments, then by Superior Court judges who heard their appeals.
In both cases, officials found that neither of the men were able to demonstrate what state law defines as justifiable need — "specific threats or previous attacks demonstrating a special danger to applicant's life that cannot be avoided by other means."
Now, the two are suing the state in federal court in what they hope will be a precedent-setting Second Amendment case challenging the state's strict interpretation of the justifiable need provision, which in practice has allowed few gun owners other than active and retired law enforcement professionals to obtain carry permits, gun-rights advocates say.
"These guys are not gun nuts. They're not people who just willy nilly buy a pistol and walk around with it," says Mark Cheeseman, a member of the Party of Six, a small group of NJ gun-rights advocates that includes Tumminelli and Almeida. "They've proven that they can handle a firearm. They've proven that they're safe people. They've met every possible point by the law, except for justifiable need."
Cheeseman says it's rare that cases such as this reach federal court, but New Jersey's gun control laws have been challenged before.
The last case was in 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up another Sussex County man's gun-carry appeal that argued that the "justifiable need" statute is unconstitutional. The courts said the plaintiff in that case, John Drake, could not prove justifiable need just because his job involved restocking ATM machines.
But Cheeseman says Almeida and Tumminello's case is different because both men have undoubtedly faced specific threats and "clearly have justifiable need."
"We're going after the justifiable needs statute on a different type of complaint than Drake did," Cheeseman said. "I think this case is going to set a precedent that 'justifiable need' is going to need to be re-examined and possibly reheard in a higher court."
Tumminelli and Almeida filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court on June 13, a day after a gunman massacred 49 people inside an Orlando gay nightclub. The incident put renewed focus on gun control efforts, both nationally and in Trenton.
Last week, Democratic state lawmakers vowed to override Gov. Chris Christie's veto of a gun-control measure that would create a formal process for judges to follow in forcing domestic violence perpetrators to surrender their guns. The governor vetoed the bill twice, saying it is redundant because abusers are already not allowed to own guns.
Democratic legislators also are blocking a Christie administration regulation that would expand the definition of justifiable need to include "serious threats" in addition to the already-standing "specific threats or previous attacks." Christie also proposed adding domestic violence victims to the categories of people who can be granted a conceal-carry permit.
“It would allow every cab driver, pizza delivery driver, Uber driver and anyone else living or working in a high-crime neighborhood to qualify for a firearm permit,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen told Townsquare Media.
Tumminelli's position as an operations and intelligence program manager to U.S. Special Operations requires him to travel with highly classified government documents. He is assigned to counter-terrorism task forces that target ISIS. Earlier this year, ISIS obtained the personal information of military and federal agents after a massive government data breach, thus making him a potential target, the lawsuit argues.
Almeida also claims he encountered numerous threats since being denied his permit. He has been the subject of a carjacking and an armed robbery, and on May 3, one of Almeida's property was tagged with graffiti reading "snitches get stitches."
Judge N. Peter Conforti, sitting in Newton, defended Almeida's application denial, saying the presence of a handgun can increase danger and that Almeida could avoid threats by instead hiring a security guard for protection, collecting checks rather than cash or moving his business.
Almeida and Tumminelli's case is just one example highlighting New Jersey's strict gun ownership laws.
Last month, Lt. Col. Terry S. Russell, a 27-year-old U.S. Army soldier, was denied a conceal-carry permit after making the same argument that he was under threat of an ISIS attack. In May, a Middlesex County resident's conceal-carry permit application was denied based on the man's "atrocious" driving record.
Christie last June, while he still was in the running for the Republican presidential nomination, created the New Jersey Firearm Purchase and Permitting Study Commission to examine New Jersey's strict gun ownership laws after Carol Bowne, who had applied for a gun permit, was killed by her abusive ex-boyfriend.
The commission in December released its report urging the state to "broaden ... the statutory requirement that an applicant must demonstrate a 'justifiable need' to carry a handgun."
The Almeida and Tumminelli lawsuit names Conforti, Sussex County Prosecutor Shaina Brenner, Andover Police Chief Eric Danielson, Newton Police Chief Michael S. Richards, the state attorney general, and the judges who denied their appeals — Carmen H. Alvarez and Marie P. Siomnelli — as defendants.
They are represented by Ryan S. Watson of Glen Mills, Pennsylvania.
The lawsuit is below: