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38th District race focuses on gun laws

Thursday, October 28, 1999

By RICHARD COWEN
Staff Writer

The guns that line the wall in Mike Luciano's Sport Shop in Lodi bear silent witness to the noisy battle between Republicans and Democrats vying for two Assembly seats in the 38th District in Bergen County.

Luciano has been selling guns for 44 years, but says the laws governing sales of firearms have changed drastically in the last five. He says it's harder than ever to purchase a firearm in New Jersey.

"New Jersey is already the toughest state in the U.S.," Luciano said from the behind the counter of his store on South Main Street. "What else can they do short of stopping sales altogether?"

Nobody is talking about stopping gun sales in the 38th District. But with less than a week to go before Election Day, the political guns have been drawn between Republican incumbents Rose Marie Heck and Guy F. Talarico and their Democratic challengers, Helene Herbert and Robert Riccardella.

The Democrats have run a campaign that has veered off the traditional road of gun control and toward the issue of gun safety. Thus, the debate is less over the right to bear arms than it is over the responsibility to do so safely.

"We believe that you have a right to have a handgun in your home," says Riccardella, 42, a former president of the Wood-Ridge Board of Education. "We don't believe that you have a right to have a handgun outside your home."

The Democrats have attacked Talarico for sponsoring an Assembly bill that would have made it easier to carry a concealed weapon. Current law makes it nearly impossible for anyone except a police officer to carry a handgun.

Talarico said he sponsored the bill after being approached by a women's group concerned about domestic violence. The group reasoned that in certain instances, women should be allowed to carry a handgun to defend themselves against brutal men. The Legislature has not adopted the measure.

"There are certain circumstances in which people's lives have been threatened," Talarico said, adding that in Florida, the homicide rate decreased 29 percent after its citizens were allowed to carry weapons.

The Democrats have also proposed creating gun-free school zones, with enhanced criminal penalties for anyone caught with a firearm or weapon within 2,000 feet of a school. That law is modeled after the the state's drug-free school zone law adopted in the 1980s.

They also want to require guns sold in New Jersey to have trigger locks so children can't use them. Herbert accused the Republicans of being beholden to the gun lobby and stalling the legislation.

"The Republicans have never met a gun safety law that they liked," said Herbert, a 35-year-old attorney and former Moonachie councilwoman in her first campaign for elective office.

The Republicans counter that the Democrats are distorting their record, and say they believe in gun safety, too.

Talarico said he was one of the co-sponsors of the trigger-lock bill, and voted for a $1 million grant to the New Jersey Institute of Technology to develop so-called "smart guns." These weapons can be fired only by their owners because the gun electronically reads the thumbprint of the owner.

"This hasn't been a fact-based discussion," said Talarico, 44, of Oradell, a vice president with Chase Manhattan Bank who is running for his second term. "The Democrats are trying to play off terrible tragedies for their own political purposes. It's an absurdity."

The Democrats have also gone after Heck for her vote in 1993 to lift the assault weapons ban imposed a few years earlier.

Heck says her vote was not an endorsement of the right to own assault weapons, but was based on advice from the law enforcement lobby that the existing legislation needed to be reworded.

"It didn't mean I was voting to give assault weapons to people," said Heck, 67, a former weekly newspaper publisher from Hasbrouck Heights running for her fifth term. "Several people in the law enforcement community said we ought to revisit this bill and make it better."

Beyond guns, both sides agree that residents should have the right to sue their health maintenance organizations. And from the beginning, both Republicans and Democrats have made vague promises about cutting taxes, which is the political equivalent to firing the starter's pistol in any election campaign.

The race is thought to be close in the 38th Assembly District, which covers much of southern and eastern Bergen County. Always considered a political battleground, party loyalties don't seem to mean much to voters in this largely blue-collar district.

The district went Democratic in 1996 when President Clinton topped the ticket, but voters backed Republican Governor Whitman in her 1997 reelection bid. It remains to be seen where the loyalities lie in a low-key election in which Assembly races occupy a rare place at the top of the ticket.

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38th District

The district comprises 16 Bergen County municipalities: Cliffside Park, Elmwood Park, Garfield, Hasbrouck Heights, Little Ferry, Lodi, Moonachie, Oradell, Palisades Park, Paramus, Ridgefield, Rochelle Park, Saddle Brook, South Hackensack, Teterboro, and Wood-Ridge.

Copyright 1999 Bergen Record Corp.