1993 Profile in Courage Award recipient James Florio, May 24, 1993.

Background

On May 30, 1990, under Governor Florio's leadership, New Jersey passed the strictest gun control law in the nation, banning the sale and severely restricting the possession of assault weapons in the state. The action was a significant legislative victory for Florio, who was then engaged in a public and political battle over his reforms to the state tax and education systems. Despite legislative attempts to override his vetoes and tireless efforts by gun lobbyists, who spent nearly one million dollars to defeat the assault weapon ban, Governor Florio succeeded in mobilizing the people of New Jersey into an unprecedented counter force against the National Rifle Association (NRA) and in support of the ban, demonstrating, as Florio said, that "the state of New Jersey will not be held hostage by the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association." In March 1993, the state senate voted unanimously to uphold the Governor's veto.

By taking a strong stand against the rising tide of weapons and violence in his state, Governor Jim Florio of New Jersey became one of the first and few governors in America to defy the powerful national gun lobby and its political forces and resources. Also, as the first state leader of the 1990s to have to confront the effects of federal cuts of state programs and a severe recession, Governor Florio's far-reaching budget and tax reforms have restored educational quality and fiscal stability in his state. Governor Florio has provided a model for the nation of wise political vision and courageous political leadership in facing up to the economic and social challenges of our times.

On May 30, 1990, under Governor Florio's leadership, New Jersey passed the strictest gun control law in the nation, banning the sale and severely restricting the possession of assault weapons in the state. Assault weapons are capable of firing dozens of rounds of ammunition in rapid succession. Owners of assault weapons in New Jersey were given until May 30, 1991 to register them as target shooting weapons, render them inoperable, or turn them over to the police.

The legislation was a significant victory for Governor Florio, who had also been engaged in a year-long public and political battle over his reforms to the state tax and education systems. The gun legislation launched a three-year-long battle with the National Rifle Association, gun rights activists, sports organizations, and the state legislature.

In 1991, after an intense lobbying effort by gun activists, the same Democratic legislature that passed the assault weapon ban voted to weaken it — even though 80 percent of New Jersey voters supported the ban. In a direct challenge to the gun lobby, Governor Florio vetoed the amendments, saying, "We will now find out if the legislature stands with the people, or with the special interests." Opponents were unable to secure sufficient votes to override Florio's veto in 1991.

Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature in the November 1991 election. In 1992, the new legislature voted to overturn the gun ban and legalize the sale and possession of assault weapons. Determined to maintain a firm stand against the special interests of the gun lobbyists, Governor Florio embarked on a statewide campaign to mobilize support for the ban, and in September, vetoed the bill.

Refusing to concede defeat, gun lobbyists funded a commercial ad campaign, inspiring demonstrations and rallies by thousands of gun rights activists, and spent nearly a million dollars to pressure the legislature to override the Governor's veto. Their strategy worked initially. On February 25, 1993, the New Jersey Assembly voted, with no advance notice to the people, to override the veto.

Although the state senate was expected to follow suit, Governor Florio's counter lobby efforts were rewarded. In an unprecedented show of support, citizens swamped lawmakers' offices with calls and letters. And in March 1993, the senate voted unanimously (28-0) to uphold the Governor's veto, demonstrating, as Florio said, that "the State of New Jersey will not be held hostage by the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association."

Hawaii has recently banned assault pistols, but New Jersey and California remain the only states where both assault rifles and pistols are banned.

This was not the first time Governor Florio had risked political and public criticism by taking a strong stand on a controversial issue. Upon taking office in 1990, he became the first state leader in the 1990s to confront the effects of federal budget cutbacks and a severe national recession, when he swiftly and boldly restructured the state's income tax system that previously had millionaires paying the same top rate as the middle-class, and reformed an unconstitutional school finance system that relied heavily on unjust property tax assessments which had increased 12-14 percent every year in the 1980s. He also had to confront an unprecedented shortfall of more than $2 billion in the current year's budget and in the fiscal year that would start a few months after he took office.

The school finance system, with its excessive reliance on property taxes, had created an education system with a wide disparity of quality and opportunities from town to town. A case pending in the New Jersey Supreme Court challenged the constitutionality of the school funding law, but Florio did not wait for the ruling. Believing the case had merit and holding fast to his ideal that "education is just another word for opportunity," and "the quality of a child's education should never depend on the accident of where that child lived," Florio proposed The Quality Education Act of 1990 to provide $1 billion in additional funds for public education. To raise the money, he made the state income tax system more progressive; 83 percent of New Jersey's citizens did not pay additional taxes. Instead, nine out of ten dollars raised by restructuring the tax system came from those making over $100,000 a year. The Quality Education Act distributed funds to more than 400 school districts to raise quality and opportunity, and provide property tax relief to homeowners.

Many citizens thought Florio had acted too quickly. There were calls for his impeachment and large protest rallies were held. Although later, the involvement of the NRA in helping to organize the opposition would be revealed. But, The Quality Education Act became law less than six months after he took his oath of office. A study by the Philadelphia Inquirer showed that in 1991, as a result of Florio's policies, property taxes went down or stabilized in 85 percent of New Jersey communities.

Florio was elected to his first of three terms in the New Jersey Assembly in 1969. In 1974, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat he held for 16 years. While there, he earned the title of "the hardest working member of Congress" from The Almanac of American Politics. In spite of considerable opposition, he shepherded the Superfund law through Congress, considered to be one of the most important pieces of federal environmental legislation of the last two decades.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1937, James Joseph Florio graduated magna cum laude from Trenton State College with a degree in Social Studies. He won the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Columbia University, and graduated from Rutgers-Camden Law School in 1967. Florio served in the U.S. Navy from 1955 to 1958, and remained in the Naval Reserves until 1975, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Florio resigned his seat in Congress in 1989 to run for governor, and was elected governor in November 1989. He was subsequently defeated for re-election in 1993 by Republican Christine Todd Whitman in a narrow vote of 49% to 48%.