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Burton v. Sills

Decided: December 16, 1968.


For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Jacobs, J.


The Law Division upheld the constitutionality of New Jersey's recently enacted "Gun Control Law" (L. 1966, c. 60; N.J.S. 2 A:151-1 et seq.) and dismissed the plaintiffs' complaint attacking it. 99 N.J. Super. 516 (1967). The Appellate Division affirmed (99 N.J. Super. 459 (1968)) and the plaintiffs appealed to this Court as of right. R.R. 1:2-1(a).

The plaintiffs are three individuals associated with sportsmen's clubs in New Jersey, two gun dealers, and a corporation organized to promote the sports of shooting and marksmanship. They filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writ naming the Attorney General and the Superintendent of State Police as defendants and seeking (1) a declaration

that Chapter 60 of the Laws of 1966 is unconstitutional and (2) an injunction against its enforcement. Chapter 60 amended previous regulatory provisions governing firearms and provided, inter alia, for the licensing of manufacturers, wholesalers and retail dealers, and for the issuance of permits and identification cards to purchasers. N.J.S. 2 A:151-19, 24, 32. The complaint alleged that although the statute requires the sellers of firearms to comply with standards and qualifications prescribed by the Superintendent of State Police, it gives the Superintendent broad powers "without legislative direction or specification." N.J.S. 2 A:151-19, 24. But the statute explicitly directs the Superintendent to prescribe standards and qualifications necessary for "the public safety, health and welfare"; this guideline, though general, is comparable to that set forth in many other State enactments and is, in its context, clearly sufficient. See Ward v. Scott, 11 N.J. 117, 122-128 (1952); Elizabeth Federal S. & L. Ass'n v. Howell, 30 N.J. 190, 194 (1959); Moyant v. Borough of Paramus, 30 N.J. 528, 552 (1959).

The complaint alleged that the statute requires a firearms purchaser to have an identification card issued by the local chief of police, or in certain instances by the Superintendent, according to stated standards but with a "general provision allowing wide discretion on the part of such officials and lacking legislative direction or specification." N.J.S. 2 A:151-33. The statute provides that a pistol or revolver permit or a firearms purchaser identification card shall not be denied to any person of good character and good repute but that no such permit or identification card shall be issued to certain groups including minors under eighteen, convicted criminals, mental and physical defectives, narcotics addicts, habitual drunkards, etc. It also provides that no permit or identification card shall be issued "to any person where the issuance would not be in the interest of the public health, safety or welfare." At oral argument the Attorney General took the position, with which we agree,

that the quoted language was intended to relate to cases of individual unfitness, where, though not dealt with in the specific statutory enumerations, the issuance of the permit or identification card would nonetheless be contrary to the public interest. Cf. State v. Neumann, 103 N.J. Super. 83, 87 (Monmouth County Ct. 1968).

In the light of this narrowed construction, the statutory standard is undoubtedly sufficient to withstand attack. See Ward v. Scott, supra; Elizabeth Federal S. & L. Ass'n v. Howell, supra; Moyant v. Paramus, supra. The Legislature's goal was to keep guns out of the hands of unfit persons. To that end it disqualified certain classes which quickly come to mind. To guard against inadvertent omissions, it delegated authority to appropriately designated officials to disqualify any unfit individuals who, though not strictly within the enumerated classes, should not in the public interest be entrusted with firearms. To guard against arbitrary official action the Legislature directed early determination and provided for easy appeal to the county court (N.J.S. 2 A:151-34). Review from the county court is readily available in the Appellate Division and, when necessary, in this Court. As has been pointed out elsewhere, these safeguards are probably of greater significance than further details in the statutory standard. See 1 Davis, Administrative Law ยง 2.15 (1958); Department of Health, State of New Jersey v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 100 N.J. Super. 366, 385 (App. Div. 1968); Esso Standard Oil Co. v. Holderman, 75 N.J. Super. 455, 474 (App. Div. 1962), aff'd, 39 N.J. 355 (1963), appeal dismissed, 375 U.S. 43, 84 S. Ct. 148, 11 L. Ed. 2 d 107 (1963); Gilman v. City of Newark, 73 N.J. Super. 562, 596 (Law Div. 1962); see also Matthews v. State, 237 Ind. 677, 148 N.E. 2 d 334, 335-37 (1958); Note, "Firearms: Problems of Control," 80 Harv. L. Rev. 1328, 1339 (1967).

The complaint alleged that the statutory provisions for disqualification because of habitual drunkenness, narcotics [53 NJ Page 92] addiction, habitual use of goofballs or pep pills and mental disorder did not embody "any standards to guide the determination of officials charged with administration thereof." But the statutory terms are readily understandable and are comparable to those used in many other New Jersey enactments. See Laba v. Newark Board of Education, 23 N.J. 364, 384 (1954); N.J.S.A. 45:9-16; N.J.S.A. 45:4 A -15; N.J.S.A. 33:1-39; N.J.S. 3 A:6-42. None of the plaintiffs has been the subject of any of the stated disqualifications and this proceeding is not an appropriate one for further treatment of the particular terms in question. Similarly, it is not one for consideration of the validity of that portion of N.J.S. 2 A:151-35 which sets forth that an applicant for a permit or identification card must state whether "he presently or ever has been a member of any organization, which advocates or approves the commission of acts of force and violence either to overthrow the Government of the United States or of this State, or which seeks to deny others their rights under the Constitutions of either the United States or the State of New Jersey." None of the plaintiffs suggests that he has been affected by this provision which is the subject of pending litigation directly addressed to it. See Application of Marvin, Jr., 97 N.J. Super. 62 (App. Div. 1967). Under the circumstances it need not be dealt with here. In the main, we find present occasion for concerning ourselves with the plaintiffs' arguments addressed to the constitutionality of the statute as a whole rather than with the individual attacks on subordinate provisions. See Grand Union Co. v. Sills, 43 N.J. 390, 409-411 (1964). In general, those attacks should be dealt with on the basis of complete records in proceedings ripe for determination as in Re Marvin, supra; in all events, the attacks on the subordinate provisions would be subject to the doctrine of severability. N.J.S. 2 A:151-57.2 ; Angermeier v. Sea Girt, 27 N.J. 298, 311 (1958). [53 NJ Page 93] We come now to the several points advanced in the plaintiffs' brief in support of their ultimate position that the Gun Control Law is basically unconstitutional and should be stricken in toto. In their first point they assert that Chapter 60 "fails in its alleged public purpose and thus must fall under the weight of the private rights it infringes upon." The public purpose of the statute is entirely evident; it is designed to prevent criminals and other unfit elements from acquiring firearms. Towards that end the Legislature has set up permit and identification requirements and has provided for disqualifications along with suitable inquiry into qualifications and fitness. In setting its course, the Legislature was undoubtedly aware of the strongly expressed views of the many enforcement officials who have long favored state and federal regulation of the sale and possession of firearms, and of the many disastrous consequences which have resulted from the widespread absence heretofore of such regulation. Illustratively, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in supporting gun control laws, recently pointed out that in virtually every murder of a law enforcement officer, a firearm is the instrument of death; and while he acknowledged that hardened criminals would frequently obtain guns in disregard of control laws, he noted that their acquisition would be more difficult, and that, in any event, a large percentage of the murders in the United States occur "within the family or among acquaintances" where the free availability of the lethal firearm is undoubtedly "a major factor." Wholly apart from the dangers which arise when firearms are in the hands of criminals, there is the undoubted danger when they are in the hands of the immature or the unfit such as the mentally deranged, the addicted and the alcoholic. Chapter 60 is explicitly designed to keep firearms from all such persons whose possession would pose a threat to the public health, safety or welfare. The homicides which occur within the family or among acquaintances, to which the Director referred, often involve highly emotional altercations

which would not result in death if a firearm were not ready at hand; and surely the hurried purchase of a firearm following an altercation would be prevented with the ensuing cooling off period entailed by the processing necessities of the statute. See Zimring, "Is Gun Control Likely to Reduce Violent Killings?", 35 U. Chi. L. Rev. 721 (1968).

The plaintiffs do not question the legitimacy of the legislative objective but urge that it will not be attained by the Gun Control Law and that the arguments against the Law outweigh those advanced in its favor. They point out that rifles and shotguns, which represent their main concern, accounted for but a small percentage of past homicides, though these notably included political assassinations, killings of enforcement officers, and snipings during riots. And they urge that, as a practical matter, the Law will not prevent hardened criminals from obtaining firearms while it imposes restrictions on those engaged in lawful and favored pursuits including hunting, target shooting, civilian small arms marksmanship training under Army programs, etc. The restrictions referred to are not prohibitions but are regulatory requirements entailing minor inconveniences which members of our society must accept and bear in the public interest. See 99 N.J. Super., at 461-462; Grimm v. City of New York, 56 Misc. 2 d 525, 289 N.Y.S. 2 d 358, 362 (Sup. Ct. 1968). The fact that some criminals may, despite the Law, still be able to obtain firearms does not at all negate the validity of the conscientious legislative efforts aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of all dangerously unfit persons, noncriminal as well as criminal. See People ex rel. Darling v. Warden of City Prison, 154 App. Div. 413, 139 N.Y.S. 277, 286 (Sup. Ct. 1913).

The plaintiffs urge that the statute, insofar as it places regulatory restrictions on the ownership of firearms by sportsmen, tends to "depress the economic, sociological, and political forces supporting the conservation and wise use of our national resources"; in particular they assert that a

depression in recreational shooting activities will bring about "a decrease in the federal funds available for waterfowl management; a decrease in funds available to State game agencies for wildlife conservation and management; and a decrease in the funds available to privately sponsored wildlife conservation organizations." We find it difficult to envision that any such consequences will result from the Law's actual operation but, in any event, are entirely satisfied that this argument of the plaintiffs, along with the others embraced within their first point, are matters of legislative rather than judicial concern. The arguments bear on the wisdom of the legislation rather than on its validity. Presumably they were all weighed by the Legislature when it concluded that the Law would further the public interest and should be adopted. We do not sit here as a superlegislature and we accept the legislative judgment as to the wisdom of the statute. See New Jersey Chapter, American Institute of Planners v. New Jersey State Board of Professional Planners, 48 N.J. 581, 609 (1967), appeal dismissed, 389 U.S. 8, 88 S. Ct. 70, 19 L. Ed. 2 d 8 (1967). Similarly we honor the presumption of constitutionality which attends all legislation (see Hudson County News Co. v. Sills, 41 N.J. 220, 227 (1963), appeal dismissed, 378 U.S. 583, 84 S. Ct. 1914, 12 L. Ed. 2 d 1036 (1964); Fried v. Kervick, 34 N.J. 68, 74 (1961)) and the doctrine that factual support ...

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