From the archives, 2006: In NJ, an 8-week wait, references and a lot of questions for gun

Ed Tarpy hasn't made a same-day sale in more than 30 years.

Customers who come to his Deptford gun shop wanting a Glock are told to take a walk - to a police station, of all places. It's the law.

I wouldn't have believed it, either, if I hadn't tried to buy a gun last week.

For states so close to each other, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are on different planets when it comes to gun laws .

Across the river, my colleague, Tom Ferrick, could arm a small militia on his lunch hour and still have time to grab a bite if he had any money left.

Alas, New Jersey residents cannot legally purchase firearms in Pennsylvania.

So in the Garden State, I spent a day and $54 being told I'd be lucky to get a handgun permit in three months - presuming that my husband and two references say it's OK and I'm not hiding any past crimes or mental breakdowns.

While being fingerprinted at the Haddonfield Police Department by Detective Sgt. Gary Pearce, I brought up "The Cartridge Family" episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer impulsively decides he wants to buy "the deadliest gun" in the store.

"Sorry pal. The law requires a five-day waiting period," he's informed.

"Five days?! But I'm mad now!" Homer hollers. "I'd kill you if I had my gun!"

Pearce, a 19-year police veteran, just grins. New Jersey may be full of hotheads. But here, they get plenty of time to cool off before firing.

Google "buy gun New Jersey," and the first hit you get is the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence Web site, www.bradycampaign.org, explaining that my fair state has some of the toughest gun laws in the country.

Here, you must be 21 to buy a handgun. It's nearly impossible to get a carry permit or own an assault weapon.

Once "smart-gun" technology finally hits the market-limiting a weapon to be fired only by its owner-New Jersey will eventually sell such guns exclusively, thanks to a 2002 law that was the first of its kind in the nation.

If that's not enough, as I type, the state Assembly is considering 17 bills taking aim at gang violence and revolving around guns.

Good laws can be bad for business. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised by the dearth of dealers in the state.

Federal statistics show only 337 licensed gun dealers in New Jersey last year, compared with 2,765 in Pennsylvania, I'm told by Kristen Rand, at the Violence Policy Center in Washington.

Maybe that explains why only 11 percent of New Jersey households have a firearm in them. In Pennsylvania, 36 percent do.

I found Ed's Gun Shop in the Yellow Pages.

By law, owners Ed and Verna Tarpy can't unlock the gun case or let me hold a revolver.

Not until I come back with a permit.

"All the laws do is come down on the law-abiding citizen," says Ed, who's had his shop 41 years.

On this point, we disagree. TV on-demand is great, but I'm comforted that I can't legally get a gun at a drive-through.

The part about having to actually talk to a cop about wanting a weapon just slays me.

"It's not the kind of thing bad guys will want to go through," notes Bryan Miller, who runs the advocacy group Ceasefire NJ.

At the Haddonfield Police Department, Pearce hands me two papers and sends me off to get a $54 money order - no cash or checks, please.

The post office is nearby, so that's a quick trip. Filling out the forms takes longer than eating my lunch.

One seeks consent so police can probe my mental health history.

The other wants to know my personal and criminal past and present - including height, weight and tattoos!

Am I an alcoholic or a drug addict? Was I a juvenile delinquent? Have I ever been a member of a group seeking to overthrow the government?

I'm told to list two non-relatives as character witnesses. My husband also gets a say in whether I'm gun-worthy.

The state even wants my work information, which makes me wonder whether people who rely on the First Amendment to do their job can lean on the Second Amendment, too.

Pearce assures me that I'll be judged no differently than any other would-be gun-buyer in this Quaker community.

"Now," he says, "the waiting begins."

My fingerprints will be sent to the New Jersey State Police and the FBI, which can take three months or more.

In the meantime, Pearce will do his own investigation. He'll check my criminal history and driving records, looking for warrants and red flags. He'll search domestic violence records to see whether anyone has ever taken out a restraining order against me.

If I had ever sought mental health treatment, he'd talk to my doctors to see whether they think it's safe for me to own a gun.

"If we feel someone is incompetent or incapacitated," Pearce says, "we can deny."

Haddonfield processes gun permit applications the day they are made. But Tarpy tells me other police departments take their time. Sometimes, the wait can stretch six months to a year. Sometimes, the customers change their minds and never return.

There is one way to get firepower, fast, in the Garden State.

Drive to Camden. Slip a kid on a corner some cash. Supply meets demand every day in the so-called Most Dangerous City in America.

Make sure to thank Pennsylvania politicians for making capitalism so deadly in New Jersey.

Fifty-two of the 131 guns recovered in Camden crimes in 2004 came from Pennsylvania, according to the most recent ATF records available. By contrast, only 21 (16 percent) were originally purchased in New Jersey.

"Pennsylvania law is so weak, it not only enables straw purchases, it encourages it," Ceasefire's Miller says.

Think about it: If you wanted to buy a bunch of guns to resell them on the street, where would you start?

In New Jersey, where you'd have to tell a cop why you want 100 handguns and wait months for your arsenal?

Buy in bulk in Pennsylvania in the morning, and double your money in the Garden State by nightfall.

Miller can't help but note that although New Jersey ranks among the lowest in the land for its statewide rate of gun violence, two cities-Camden and Trenton-are among the nation's most bullet-ridden.

"Guess what? They're both on the Delaware River, just a short drive to Pennsylvania," he sneers.

Where there's a bridge, there's a way if you're in a rush to become armed and dangerous.

Me? I'm happy to wait. I don't really want a gun.

Eight weeks later: The permit arrives

The wait is over. Eight weeks and six days after applying for a New Jersey Firearms Purchaser Identification Card and handgun purchase permit, I got them. So ends the experiment that Tom Ferrick and I conducted in May.

He bought two weapons within minutes the day he ventured out on a whim to test Pennsylvania's embarrassingly lame gun laws. Had he the money or motive, Ferrick could have outfitted a militia with a single swipe of the company credit card.

Me? I had to spend the summer sweating over whether the Haddonfield Police Department would give me the go-ahead to go gun shopping.

Personally, I didn't mind the wait. But does anyone really think the world is safer because a suburban mom had to think long and hard about getting armed and dangerous?

If you've been following the fireworks lately, you know better.

While I worried about background checks and personal references, kids and creeps have been blowing one another away with weapons they most definitely did not acquire by filling out forms at their local police station.

Between May 18 (the day I applied for my permit) and July 19 (the day I picked it up), 70 people in Philadelphia were killed with guns, according to analysis by my colleague Alletta Emeno. One day last week, bullets claimed three victims in 20 minutes.

Seven others were gunned down in South Jersey in the eight-week period. Even bucolic Burlington County had an attempted murder last week.

That shooter, and his gun, are still on the run. When I ask my contact at the prosecutor's office the odds that the guy went through what I did to get his gun, he just laughs.

One day after I spent $54 and my lunch hour applying for my gun permit, my next-door neighbor got a questionnaire in the mail.

I'd listed her as a character witness because, in New Jersey, they care about far more than whether prospective gun owners are former felons.

Question 9: Is the applicant an alcoholic? Question 10: Is the applicant a habitual drunkard?

Suddenly, I'm rethinking every beer I've downed on my deck.

Question 14 wanted to know whether I'm an anarchist. Question 16, if I'm now, or ever have been, "treated or observed" for any mental condition.

That one got me thinking. Could the authors of the Constitution have intended to deny Second Amendment rights to women who have suffered baby blues or men who take Prozac?

Today's leaders think it's better to be safe than sorry.

"If we get two people who say you shouldn't have a gun, we're probably going to deny you," Detective Sgt. Gary Pearce explains. "You can always go to Superior Court to appeal."

At the end of June, Pearce dropped by the house, asking my husband if he knew of my plans and if he approved.

Initially, I'm horrified. What if we had a bad marriage, and I wanted the gun for self-protection? Why should he get to overrule my decision?

Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women, sees it differently. It's never wise to bring firepower into an abusive household, she says. And if New Jersey's law requires spousal notification, victims get time to prepare - or leave.

"It's a very thoughtful law," Gandy tells me by phone. "Yes, it makes it harder for people who aren't criminals or violent to get a gun. But, at the same time, it makes it harder for the people who are."

Which brings us back to reality. While Pearce and I finish business at the station Wednesday, Philadelphia's death toll is rising by the hour.

Pearce says he supports gun rights but thinks the lengthy application process in New Jersey can help to keep weapons "out of the wrong hands."

"But," he adds, "I don't think it really stops it."

We both know where hotheaded kids looking to settle scores get their guns: on the street, in either state.

I give Pearce another $7, sign the paperwork, and head home armed only with potential.

Once again, the clock is ticking. That handgun purchase permit I waited so long to get?

It expires in 90 days.

These articles were published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 21, 2006 and July 23, 2006.

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