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New Jersey governor Chris Christie is once again breaking with the Republican Party, by announcing plans to significantly strengthen gun laws in the Garden State.

Christie is seeking to expand gun sale background checks, require parental consent for minors to buy violent video games, ban purchases of the .50-caliber Barrett rifle, and make it easier for doctors and courts to commit mentally ill individuals to treatment against their will, among other reforms. The ambitious plan, which Christie released one week after receiving 50 recommendations from his anti-gun-violence task force, would further strengthen what the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence already considers to be the nation’s second-toughest state gun laws.

“This is about violence control,” Governor Christie said at a press conference announcing the proposal. “In order to deal with the kind of violence we’re seeing, we must address the many contributing factors to that violence.”

“As we see unfortunately almost every day on the news, violence is all around us,” he added. “We have a responsibility to be the adults in the room on this conversation. Not just to pander to one side of this argument or the other. But we need to be thoughtful and we need to be informed and we need to focus on what steps will actually work, that aren’t just emotional responses that will make us feel good for the moment but that will do nothing to actually keep our state safe.”

The reform push is loaded with political implications for both Christie and the national Republican Party. In the short term, it should fortify Christie’s robust approval ratings in New Jersey, a solidly blue state where voters almost universally favor strengthening gun laws. Christie will stand for re-election in November, 2013.

The move could complicate an oft-rumored Christie presidential run in 2016, however, by further straining his already fraught relationship with the GOP’s right-wing base. The New Jersey governor angered many party activists by effusively praising President Barack Obama’s proactive response to Superstorm Sandy in the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign, then furiously denouncing House Speaker John Boehner for delaying a vote on a Sandy relief package until after the 112th Congress had adjourned. As a result of these perceived betrayals, Christie did not receive an invitation to the Conservative Political Action Conference, which tends to serve as a high-profile test for Republican presidential contenders.

If Christie does indeed seek the presidency in 2016, he will likely be the only serious Republican contender with aggressive gun reform efforts on his record. This could be a major hurdle, considering many Republicans’ strong opposition to gun reform (one recent poll found that just 37 percent of Republicans favor strengthening gun laws, compared with 83 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents.)

On the other hand, by seeking to expand background checks, Christie is going on record as backing a policy that nearly 9 in 10 Americans support. So while Christie’s reform plan could hurt his position in the primaries, it could also have a huge payoff if he made it to the general election. Ultimately, Christie’s gun reform push crystallizes the choice that Republican voters will face when they choose their next presidential nominee: Would they rather remain ideologically pure by shifting further to the right, or have a real chance to reclaim the White House?

AP Photo/Mel Evans

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