By Matthew Arco | February 13th, 2013 - 4:54pm
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TRENTON – Assembly lawmakers opened the floodgates Wednesday on the debate over gun violence and Second Amendment rights.

Gun rights advocates and those in favor of tighter firearms restrictions clashed during an Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee hearing where lawmakers were readying to push through more than 20 bills aimed at curbing gun violence.

The heated debate took place amid cheers and heckling from nearly 200 people – mostly gun rights advocates – who packed the committee room.

“We may not agree today on everything, but one thing I hope we can agree on is we must do what’s best for the people of New Jersey,” said Assemblyman Charles Mainor, (D-31), the committee’s chairman.

Gun rights advocates promptly fought back, accusing lawmakers of overreaching and criticizing them for failing to understand the purpose of the Second Amendment.

“I think we should focus our efforts on criminals,” said Reijo Finnila, a Freehold resident and former federal officer, whose comments were echoed by many of the residents who came to testify.

“If these gun laws pass I’ll be leaving New Jersey,” he said.

Several attendees were ejected from the committee hearing over the course of the day. Similarly, tempers flared up enough to cause at least one lawmaker, sympathetic to the gun rights advocates’ cause, to caution certain people against overstepping.

“Please have a level of decorum,” said Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, (R-24).

“I am on your side,” she said. “[But,] I don’t appreciate the tone of how you’re talking to us legislators.”

Nora Craig, a member of a state Tea Party group, spurred a shouting match between the room and the committee chairman after she criticized Mainor for having a sidebar conversation while she gave testimony on a bill.

“This is my meeting,” Mainor said, which prompted Craig to respond, “This house is my house.”

The panel started to take the votes after lawmakers took hours of testimony from attendees largely made up of people opposed to the measures. Early in the day, the committee released five bills before deciding to hold the rest of the votes until all of the testimony was completed.

“The anger I feel is intense because of the situation that you are really not understanding,” said Frank Fiamingo, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, who estimated between 400 and 500 of his members were at the Statehouse.

“There’s a difference between law-abiding citizens … and the criminals,” he said. “You’re going about it all wrong. … You’re not regulating the right people.”

Fiamingo’s comments were echoed in part by Republican lawmakers who criticized their Democratic counterparts in the Assembly for pushing through the legislative package in the way they did.

“What we’re seeing is very unusual,” said Assemblyman Sean Kean, (R-30). “I just believe that these important issues deserve to be fully vetted.”

The few attendees who came to the meeting in support of the measures called the bills “common sense” answers to real life problems.

“It’s just so simple and easy to understand,” said Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call, who told lawmakers he didn’t think the founding fathers based democracy “on the amount of loud people” who could pack a room.

“We’ve got issues in our community. We have violence in our communities. Now, what is the rational and sane response?” Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, (D-15), asked of the committee, explaining it’s the obligation of the Legislature to address the problem.

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