12/20/2012 06:15 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Gun Control Can Be Achieved By Standing Up To NRA

On March 17, 1990, I signed the nation's toughest ban on assault rifles into law. Almost immediately, the National Rifle Association and others in the gun lobby began pushing to overturn the law. And almost just as quickly, New Jersey lawmakers started wavering in the face of political reprisals from the NRA.

Just two years later, in 1992, the effort to keep military-style weapons off New Jersey streets was threatened. A new bill to repeal the ban passed the state Legislature - with potentially enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto. Legislators who once joined me in supporting the ban suddenly caved in. But the bill stood.

I am recalling this history because today, once again faced with incomprehensible tragedy facilitated by a weapon of war, we must learn from those early days. We can remember how the citizens of New Jersey stood up to one of the nation's most powerful lobbies and told their lawmakers they valued the lives of innocent people more than the desires of gun owners to own the tools of mass killing.

The story of how New Jersey created - and maintained - the nation's toughest ban on assault rifles needs re-telling today as the nation grieves over the deaths of teachers and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

During my term as governor, we knew an assault rifle ban would incite the NRA. We were right. The NRA soon began sending operatives to our state to recruit and provide financial support to candidates who would repeal the ban. There was plenty of money for legislators who would vote to repeal and political payback for those who dared to defy this powerful lobby.

But we also knew the vast majority of our citizens understood the insanity of allowing these weapons on our streets. We had to mobilize this majority. We needed to let our lawmakers know they would win more votes by supporting - not repealing -- the ban.

We rallied everyday citizens: teachers, physicians, nurses, police, clergy, parent organizations, unions and professionals. We got people engaged and informed and the vast majority understood that the ban made sense. The key to surviving the NRA assault was coalition building. Voters started calling their local legislators, whose phones rang off the hook, and whose mailboxes were filled with personal letters. Lawmakers heard the outcry from the citizens of New Jersey.

On March 16, 1993, the state Senate voted unanimously - yes, unanimously - not to overturn the ban. Then-Senate President Donald T. DiFrancesco and seven other Republicans who had supported the original repeal changed their minds. I remember that Gov. DiFrancesco called his vote a signal that legislators are listening to the public - that they were not tools of special interests.

The ban remains in effect today.

This history need retelling because too many leaders today cower in the shadows of the NRA and believe this organization cannot be defeated. New Jersey is not an anomaly. The people of Arizona, or Utah, or South Carolina or any other American state care as much about their children as the people in New Jersey care about their children.

A ban on assault weapons is not the beginning of a slippery slope. We are not talking about banning the legitimate use of guns by law-abiding hunters and gun enthusiasts. What hunter needs a rifle that fires 50 to 60 rounds each minute? These weapons were designed for one reason: to kill a large number of human beings in a short amount of time.

A ban must have teeth. Connecticut is one of just a handful of states that ban assault rifles, but that state's ban has so many loopholes the assault rifle used in Newtown was legally purchased in Connecticut by the gunman's mother. New Jersey's tougher ban can be a model for the nation, which is now - finally - ready to tackle the issue.

We must not forget the children of Newtown and let their memories fade. The gun lobby counts on the time to pass. They count on people forgetting. We won't let them.

We need leadership for sensible restrictions on guns and we need to get to the root causes of violence in our society. I serve on the board of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, and I have asked them to convene a series of conversations to examine gun violence, mental health issues and the culture of violence that permeates our society. These are true public health issues.

We have an epidemic of violence that is killing our children, and robbing our country of its future. We all feel a sense of urgency now. The American people are angry - and they should be. The lovely sounding names of American towns now evoke fear and carnage: Columbine, Aurora, Newtown.

Those struggling with mental illness or harboring a gnawing grudge against a co-worker or estranged spouse cannot have easy access to weapons similar to the ones given to our soldiers in Afghanistan. We need verifiable background checks for all gun purchases - including those at gun shows. We should not give a gun to a person who we would not let drive a car. As we must begin to change the culture of gun violence, just as we changed public opinion on smoking and drunk driving.

The New Jersey experience shows that the public can be rallied to oppose assault weapons. The voices of ordinary citizens are stronger than the concentrated lobbying of a special interest group. We can act now - or wait until the next American town faces tragedy.

To the politicians who fear the NRA, I have a question: Who would you rather face? An annoyed gun lobbyist who can no longer own his AR-15, or the mother who lost a child to one?