Guns aren’t just on the lips of New Mexicans debating firearms bills at this year’s legislative session.
Handguns are on the hips, or under the jackets, of gun rights supporters in legislative committee rooms. Semiautomatic rifles are perched on the shoulders of demonstrators at rallies outside the Capitol’s front door.
New Mexico is one of just a few states that allow guns, concealed or otherwise, at its state Capitol – a policy that has never been seriously challenged.
“This truly is the Wild West,” said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, who opposes the practice.
And while Second Amendment lobbyists are more likely to have cellphones in their holsters than guns, this year’s debate over gun control appears to have ratcheted up the number of visible weapons in and around the Roundhouse.
One example: Jon Barrie, a tea party supporter who ran for U.S. Senate last year, had his Colt Commander .45 semiautomatic handgun under his suit coat at a recent House committee hearing – until the crowded room got too warm and he took the jacket off.
Either way, he points out, he was legal: He has a permit for concealed carry, and open carry is allowed almost everywhere.
Barrie, who says he wears his weapon all the time – even at home – claims that allowing guns at the Capitol makes it “the safest place in Santa Fe.”
Plenty of people would disagree.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Dave Schmidt, a lobbyist for four decades. “This is a volatile place, because emotions run so high, people feel so strongly for and against bills.”
Former Sen. Dede Feldman, a Democrat from Albuquerque, introduced a proposal last year to change Senate rules to prohibit guns in the Senate chamber, the public gallery, hallways and committee rooms. It never was acted on.
Her suggestion was prompted by a tea party rally outside the Capitol at which participants were armed, which had upset some Capitol workers.
“The State Police said, ‘Sorry, we can’t do anything about this. This is perfectly legal,’ ” Feldman recalled.
The lawmaker, who chaired a committee, already was worried about the increasing number of angry outbursts in committee rooms. And she had long thought it was unsafe to have armed people – other than police – in a Capitol clogged with schoolchildren, who visit the building by the busload during legislative sessions.
“We have such an open and accessible Legislature, and it’s wonderful for kids to learn how we govern ourselves,” Feldman said. “But it also puts them in harm’s way.”
Feldman was among a minority of lawmakers who opposed the legalization of concealed carry in New Mexico, which was passed in 2003 and signed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat.
It allows New Mexicans to get licenses to carry loaded, concealed handguns if they take training and pass criminal background checks.
About 26,000 New Mexicans currently are licensed for concealed carry, according to the Department of Public Safety.
How many of those – legislators, lobbyists, employees or visitors – are carrying in the Capitol can’t be determined. By law, the names of the licensees can’t be publicly disclosed.
Out in the open
There are no licensing or training requirements for so-called open carry. It is legal for New Mexicans to carry loaded weapons as long as they’re not concealed – although not into federal buildings, schools or liquor establishments, where weapons are prohibited.
Some county courthouses also have banned guns. That’s at the discretion of presiding state district judges.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures – which would not identify them – only three states other than New Mexico allow open carry and concealed carry in the state Capitol. Six other states allow concealed carry.
NCSL spokesman Morgan Cullen said he could not provide the names of the states because the information was obtained from security personnel at capitols with the understanding it would be kept confidential.
Department of Public Safety Secretary Gorden Eden, a former U.S. marshal for New Mexico, said open carry in the Capitol has not been a source of concern for State Police, who are in charge of security during legislative sessions.
“I guess it’s the fact that we’re accustomed to it. It’s something that we’re not surprised to see,” Eden said.
He said there have been no reports of incidents or problems connected to open or concealed carry in the building.
“Guns aren’t the scary part. It’s the people that have mental health issues … that make guns such a scary issue,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, echoing the arguments of other Second Amendment advocates who are opposing gun control efforts this year on the grounds that the focus ought to be on mental health.
Muñoz sponsored a 2010 law backed by the National Rifle Association that allows concealed carry licensees to take their handguns into restaurants that serve beer or wine, unless the restaurant posts signs prohibiting it.
There’s an effort this year to expand that to bars and restaurants with full liquor licenses.
Also under discussion this year are proposals to require background checks on buyers at gun shows and to ban assault weapons and large capacity magazines.
Sen. McSorley contends public safety is taking a back seat to Second Amendment rights, and attributes that to the power of the NRA.
“If I thought there was any chance of getting a bill passed banning weapons in the Capitol building I would be all for it,” McSorley said.
The building is small enough, with few enough entrances, that it would be easy to prevent weapons from getting in, he said.
“But this is the course we have chosen,” he said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal