With the debate over gun violence roiling at a national level, a New Mexico effort to tighten gun laws stalled Monday in a House committee.
The bill requiring background checks for private sales and at gun shows tied 8-8 in the House Judiciary Committee, leaving it in limbo. Its sponsor, Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said there was “wiggle room” to make changes to it, and he hoped it could be revived and approved.
The panel’s seven Republicans, joined by Democrat Eliseo Alcon of Milan, voted against the measure. The other eight Democrats voted for it.
Alcon said some of his elderly Navajo constituents objected that background checks would be required if they gave or willed their guns to adult family members.
The vote followed a hearing of more than four hours that included more than two hours of public testimony. It was the first airing of the legislation, and it drew more than 200 people – including members of the National Rifle Association – to the Capitol for the highly charged hearing.
Currently, background checks are required only when buyers get their weapons from federally licensed gun dealers, whether at gun shows or elsewhere.
“We want to keep these weapons away from individuals who shouldn’t be possessing them in the first place,” Garcia said.
The legislation would require the Department of Public Safety to set up a hotline, operational daily, for sellers to request background checks.
DPS could establish fees of $25 for background checks for private sales, and $35 for gun show transfers.
Violating the law would be a misdemeanor.
The proposal mirrors federal law that makes certain people ineligible to buy guns, including those under 18, felons, alcohol or drug addicts, those convicted of domestic violence or subject to a restraining order, or those dishonorably discharged from the armed forces.
The committee during debate altered the bill to eliminate the establishment of a registry of gun owners, which opponents had criticized.
The committee met in the House chambers, in sight of a table strewn with guns that Santa Fe police acquired recently in a buyback event. Each side was given an hour to testify.
Opponents said Garcia’s proposal was unworkable, unenforceable and a waste of the Legislature’s time and the taxpayers’ money.
They said it would infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens and drive illegal sales further underground into the black market.
Tara Mica, a state liaison with the National Rifle Association, said it would create “a new state bureaucracy that will have no impact on crime.”
As it is, she said, the government is not even enforcing the laws already on the books. Only a fraction of the ineligible people who illegally try to buy guns and are red-flagged because of background checks are actually prosecuted, she said.
Steve Aikens of Clovis called the legislation a “knee-jerk reaction” to recent high-profile shootings and said it would restrict only law-abiding citizens.
“People with severe mental health issues have no regard for life. … They’re not going to buy a gun. They’re going to steal guns,” Aikens said.
The debate is occurring in the shadow of the slaughter of 20 elementary school students and six adults in a Newtown, Conn., school, and the killing of a dozen people and the wounding of 58 more in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
And just last week, mourners buried five members of a South Valley family who authorities say were shot to death by a teenage family member. Sarah and Greg Griego and three of their children – Zephaniah, 9; Jael, 5; and Angelina, 2 – were killed by the Griegos’ 15-year-old son Nehemiah, according to Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies.
“Right now this country is suffering from a terrible epidemic, a tragic loss of life because of firearms,” said Santa Fe businessman Paul Schmitt. “All it is is a background check. It really doesn’t infringe on anyone’s rights.”
Rev. Talitha Arnold, minister of the United Church of Santa Fe, said background checks could prevent not just homicides, but suicides. Any delays in purchases caused by a background check requirement would be worth the lives saved, she said.
Rep. William Rehm, R-Albuquerque, a member of the committee, acknowledged that the public is upset about the recent shootings in Albuquerque and elsewhere.
“The individuals who are involved in these crimes are all troubled youth,” Rehm said.
He said violent video games are desensitizing young people.
And while drunken drivers are blamed after fatal accidents, he complained the reaction to the high-profile shootings has been to get “totally upset at the gun, not at the shooter.”