New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is known as a tough-talking politician who can blur political lines.
That's why Christie’s decision to veto a New Jersey gun bill that would have banned high-capacity ammunition clips over 10 rounds and his refusal to meet with the families of Sandy Hook victims about the legislation have left some wondering if the Republican governor of the Garden State is still the party-busting politician he's made out to be.
Christie defended his position not to meet with the Sandy Hook families, saying doing so would have been “hypocritical” when he had already made up his mind, and his office also confirmed that the governor met with the families in July 2013. But Neil Heslin, the father of slain Sandy Hook student Jesse Lewis, says family members felt slighted by Christie’s refusal to meet with them.
Heslin also says he felt Christie blamed the victims during the press conference in which he explained his veto.
"I respect his position on the bill, vetoing it. I don't agree with it, but I respect it. Just the way his remarks and his comments were, they were uncalled for and unjustified. There was no reason for not meeting with us,” Heslin says.
Christie’s decision not to sit down with the families also caught the attention of former GOP congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who has been supportive of Christie in the past.
“I think it is kind of chicken-something, which I won’t say on the air,” Scarborough said on "Morning Joe" Tuesday. “When you start going down this path … of having to defend the indefensible, these are the silly things that come out of your mouth.”
Scarborough accused Christie of vetoing the bill in order to boost his Second Amendment credentials ahead of a presidential campaign in which he could run against gun hard-liners like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
"I think Ted Cruz could sit there and articulate why he would oppose this gun law," Scarborough said. "I'm sure he's thought about it a lot. I don't think Chris Christie can."
As the governor of a heavily Democratic state and a potential Republican presidential contender in 2016, Christie has walked a fine line on gun policy throughout his tenure, earning praise and admonishment from both sides of the Second Amendment debate.
After the shooting at Sandy Hook, Christie surprised some by ordering the creation of the SAFE Task Force, which explored ways to reduce violence in the state of New Jersey. He also condemned a National Rifle Association ad, calling it “reprehensible” for alluding to the president’s daughters. The ad, which was about the NRA’s support for armed guards in schools, asked, “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?”
”For any of us who are public figures, you see that kind of ad and you cringe. You cringe because it’s just not appropriate in my view to do that,” Christie said. “Get to the real issues. Don’t be dragging people’s children into this. It’s wrong.”
Yet when it comes to policy, Christie’s positions have been measured. The collection of gun bills he has signed and vetoed reveals a politician keenly aware of the broad array of constituencies he must satisfy if he wants to remain a viable political factor in 2016. Last summer ahead of his re-election, Christie signed a series of 10 bills regulating guns, including one that banned individuals on the terrorist watch list from purchasing handguns and another that strengthened penalties against gun traffickers.
But many of the measures signed by Christie were not all that controversial, and he vetoed a few major bills that gun rights groups rallied against, including one that would have banned .50-caliber rifles and another that would have created a system for instant background checks. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll last year found that 54 percent of New Jersey residents strongly supported the rifle ban and 70 percent strongly supported the background check bill.
New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, says Christie's approach to gun legislation reveals he's got the White House on his mind.
“Christie is a conservative, and he is letting groups who are going to make a difference in the Republican Party influence him," Sweeney says. “He is sending a message within his party.”
The governor might not always be where the majority of his constituents are, but they have elected him to his office twice. William Palatucci, the chairman of Christie'’s 2013 gubernatorial campaign, says a lot of that has to do with the force of Christie’s personality and his propensity for straight talk.
“He doesn’t pussyfoot around,” Palatucci says. “He doesn’t hide from the tough issues. He is also pro-life, but he got elected in a blue state because he speaks his mind.”
Palatucci says Christie’s been clear with voters from the start about where he stands on guns, and it's the Democratic legislature that sometimes makes political stands with the bills they send up.
“The governor has been incredibly consistent on legislation related to firearms in New Jersey,” Palatucci says. “New Jersey has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation and therefore, very little if any change is necessary. All we need to do is enforce the laws on the books.”
Updated on July 8, 2014: Comments from Neil Heslin have been added to this story.