April 22, 2013

The Senate gun control compromise failed, but that hasn’t stopped individual states from pursuing their own solutions. Connecticut, Colorado, New York and Maryland have passed new gun control laws, and joining them soon is New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie has announced his support for a proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases, to require parental consent for minors to buy violent video games, to ban purchases of particular rifles, and to make it easier for courts and individuals to commit “potentially dangerous” people to mental health treatment against their will.

This is a significant expansion of New Jersey’s already-tough gun control laws, and some provisions — like the mental health proposal — are genuinely controversial. Within his state, however, Christie is on firm ground. Large majorities of New Jersey voters support stricter gun laws, including bans on high-capacity magazines, universal background checks, and laws that would prevent people with mental illnesses from buying guns. What’s more, Christie is bolstered by his personal popularity — a whopping 68 percent of New Jersey residents approve of the first-term governor.

If Christie has a problem, it’s with the national Republicans who oppose new gun regulations. His national ambitions are clear, and supporting new regulation puts him on the wrong side of the GOP. And while he has yet to receive heat for his stance on gun control, it’s not unreasonable to think that this will further alienate conservative activists. After all, they already distrust the New Jersey governor — hence his snub at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (on account of his praise for President Obama following Hurricane Sandy).

It’s hard to see how Christie avoids this problem. Remember, he’s running for reelection in a deep blue state that supported Obama by double-digits. On an issue like gun control — which is as much cultural signaling as it is public policy — it’s in his best interest as a New Jersey politician to support new regulations.

If the Republican Party were more flexible, this wouldn’t be a concern — Christie would have the space he needs to make smart political decisions, since a little heterodoxy is a small price to pay for broad appeal and wide popularity. As it stands, the GOP doesn’t seem to be a place for blue state governors who also have national ambition. If Christie does decide to make a bid for national office, this could come back to haunt him.

What this is likely to end up showing, again, is that for all the talk of reform, the Republican Party is in the same place it’s been for the last four years — hostile to ideological deviation, whatever the reason. Pushing change, or breaking from the conservative line, remains a tricky proposition.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.