Cache and Carry

Posted: April 18, 2007

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.

The gun gauntlet

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.

The waiting game

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.

Blame the neighbors

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.

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 856-779-3914 or myant@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.

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