TRENTON — To enhance gun safety in New Jersey, a  state lawmaker has introduced legislation that would mandate safe storage of firearms.

Assemblywoman Joann Downey, D-Monmouth, said current law calls for storage requirements and penalties if a minor accesses a loaded firearm. But there is no general requirement for storing firearms when not in use.

This bill will establish penalties for improper storage of a firearm that would result in access of a firearm. It requires a warning to be issued to firearm purchasers, said Downey. It also requires the attorney general to establish a public awareness campaign to inform and educate the public on the requirements and penalties imposed under the bill and the dangers associated with the presence of a loaded, unsecured firearm in the home.

The bill requires the legal owner of a firearm to store or secure a firearm that is not in use, unloaded, in a gun safe or securely locked box or container. Downey said it also mandates that the legal owner of the firearm store the ammunition separately in a securely locked box or container.

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First time violators would be sentenced to 10 hours to 40 hours of community service. For second and subsequent offenses, the owner is guilty of a disorderly persons offense, which is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. That person would be prohibited from purchasing, owning, possessing or controlling a firearm, she added.

Last year saw a surge in firearm purchases and a 300% increase in gun permit applications in New Jersey.

While New Jersey has several laws regulating gun sales, attention has not been given to the firearms already in New Jersey homes so safe storage in terms of this bill is one way to address this, said Downey.

She said safe firearm storage addresses the suicide prevention aspect because time and space would be put between suicidal people and the most lethal form of suicide.

Downey also said for domestic violence protection, safe gun storage decreases the odds of a domestic fight becoming fatal.

As far as unintentional shootings, especially ones involving children with access to unsecured firearms in homes, she hopes this bill will reduce the odds of these senseless acts from happening.

One incident that Downey strongly remembers happened in 2013 in Toms River. A 4-year-old gained access to a loaded rifle in his father's bedroom and fired a single shot into the head of his 6-year-old neighbor. Anthony Senatore was sentenced to three years in prison for leaving the loaded rifle that killed the boy, unsecured and accessible to the children in his home.

The loaded rifle was not the only firearm left unsecured in the home. Authorities also found four shotguns with ammunition nearby, accessible to the children.

In 2017, a Stratford police officer was charged after his 8-year-old daughter died from a gunshot wound at the family home on New Year's Eve. Authorities did not say how Sailor Righter got shot but her mother had suggested in Facebook posts that it was suicide and that the 8-year-old "became severely depressed after Christmas."

Kenneth Righter was charged with second-degree child endangerment as a result of his unsecured weapon, as well as a disorderly persons offense of improperly storing a firearm if minors have access.

In 2018 in Jersey City, two people were injured by the accidental firing of firearms. Two children were taken into custody after an 11-year-old was seriously injured by a gun they were playing with when it accidentally fired.

In 2020 in Pemberton Township, the father of three young children had fallen asleep with a loaded handgun next to him on a bed when his 4-year-old son accidentally shot and killed himself. Andrew Mack had been charged with second degree child endangerment and charged with improper storage of firearms if minors may have access.

Just this week in Long Branch, a domestic disturbance call at a veteran's police officer's home led to the discovery of a meth lab, officials said. Authorities also found an open, unsecured gun safe with two long guns, four handguns, eight high capacity magazines and ammunition inside Christopher Walls' home. They say the safe was accessible to a child living in the home.

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