TRENTON - New Jersey has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, and they are likely to get tougher still.

The state Senate on Thursday gave final passage to a bill banning the sale of .50-caliber rifles, high-powered weapons that are accurate to more than one mile and popular with some firearms enthusiasts.

The measure was included in a package of gun measures crafted by Senate Democrats after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. It passed largely along party lines.

The Senate also passed a bill calling for encoding firearms permit information on driver's licenses and requiring gun purchasers to take a firearms safety course.

"This is a far-reaching plan to reduce gun violence that will serve as a national model for gun safety," Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said of the package of gun bills. "We are accomplishing here in New Jersey what couldn't get done in Washington."

Gov. Christie has his own plan, including measures that would make it a crime to provide a weapon to a convicted criminal, bolster penalties for illegal gun trafficking, and make it easier to confine and treat psychiatrically disturbed people who pose a risk of gun violence.

Christie has voiced support for a ban on .50-caliber rifles. But a spokesman said Thursday that the governor had not committed to any specific measures proposed by the Democrats.

"Gov. Christie is committed to measures that will sensibly reduce gun violence and address underlying issues, including mental health," said Colin Reed. "He is grateful to the Legislature for its efforts, and will review the legislative proposals when they hit his desk."

The bill calling for the firearms permit information to be encoded in driver's licenses, or a "smart card" for people without a driver's license, would mark a significant change in the state's system of firearms regulation were it to be passed by the Assembly and signed by the governor.

Firearms dealers would have access to a state database that could tell them instantly whether the potential buyer had been approved for weapons purchases by the state.

Currently, people wishing to purchase a rifle or a shotgun in New Jersey must pass a criminal-background check. Restrictions on handgun purchases are even more stringent.

That information would now be included on a state database and instantly checkable. Under the Sweeney bill adopted by the Senate, by a vote of 23-17, purchasers would also be required for the first time to pass a firearms safety course.

How all this will play out with a governor's race and both houses of the Legislature up for reelection this year remains unclear.

While an effort to tighten oversight of gun sales failed on Capitol Hill this year, New Jersey always has been more receptive to tighter controls.

The state, for example, has an assault-weapons ban, while the federal government does not. Handgun purchases in New Jersey have long been tightly regulated, while the federal government has left regulation of those weapons largely up to states.

While the governor's gun and antiviolence package shares some elements of the Democrats' plan, notably an emphasis on tougher penalties for gun crimes and the proposed ban on .50-caliber rifles, they take fundamentally different approaches.

Sweeney's plan, in encoding firearms identification-card information on driver's licenses, essentially would revamp the state's system for regulating firearms purchases.

Christie's plan places significant emphasis on easing the process for involuntarily committing mentally ill people who pose a potential danger.

In keeping with the widely held view among Republicans that violent entertainment has desensitized society and created a climate where gun violence is more likely, Christie has also proposed restrictions on access to violent video games by children and teenagers.

Contact Chris Mondics
at 609-989-9016 or cmondics@phillynews.com.