In a case decided last week, the superior court upheld a state law saying that nobody may possess "any handgun" without obtaining law enforcement approval and permission in advance.
That outcome might seem like something of a surprise, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in the D.C. v. Heller case that the Second Amendment guarantees "the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation."
But New Jersey Appellate Division Judge Stephen Skillman wrote on behalf of a unanimous three-judge panel that Heller "has no impact upon the constitutionality of" the state law.
That's because, Skillman said, the Supreme Court did not strike down the District of Columbia's de facto handgun ban but instead simply ordered the city to issue a permit. In other words, while Americans may have the right in general to possess arms, the exact contours of that right have not been mapped, especially as the Second Amendment applies to state laws. (The court's majority opinion last year said: "We therefore assume that petitioners' issuance of a license will satisfy respondent's prayer for relief and do not address the licensing requirement.")
Look for the Supreme Court to revisit this question in a few months when it hears a case called McDonald v. Chicago. It's a constitutional challenge to Chicago's restrictive gun laws, which prohibit anyone from possessing firearms -- even in their homes -- "unless such person is the holder of a valid registration certificate for such firearm."
New Jersey's laws are similar. They say: "No person shall sell, give, transfer, assign or otherwise dispose of, nor receive, purchase, or otherwise acquire a handgun unless the purchaser, assignee, donee, receiver or holder... has first secured a permit to purchase a handgun as provided by this section."
Another section dealing with licensing says: "No person of good character and good repute in the community in which he lives, and who is not subject to any of the disabilities set forth in this section or other sections of this chapter, shall be denied a permit to purchase a handgun or a firearms purchaser identification card, except as hereinafter set forth." Some of the exceptions involve criminal records, for instance.
What prompted the current lawsuit was a request for a handgun purchase permit that Anthony Dubov submitted to the East Windsor Chief of Police. The police chief denied Dubov's request without giving any reason, in what the appeals court later ruled was a violation of state law. The current East Windsor police chief is William Spain.
Oddly, the trial judge upheld that denial, without asking the police chief to testify to explain himself (another violation of state law) and after taking the unusual step of contacting Dubov's previous employers to ask about his background.
Dubov's attorney, Michael Nieschmidt, argued that the state licensing scheme was unconstitutionally vague and therefore violated the Second Amendment.
Skillman concluded that while the Second Amendment doesn't apply, state law and precedent nevertheless required that Dubov receive more due process than he did. The appeals court wrote: "Accordingly, the trial court's affirmance of the police chief's denial of appellant's application for a firearms purchase permit is reversed, and the case is remanded for an evidentiary hearing in conformity with this opinion."
Declan McCullagh is a correspondent for CBSNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com and is on Twitter as declanm. You can bookmark the Taking Liberties site here, or subscribe to the RSS feed.