ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Over the past year at the state Capitol, guns have been more than a topic of debate: They’ve been openly worn in committee rooms and throughout the building, and toted by demonstrators outside.
That’s a change from previous years, when guns were rarely carried out in the open.
Last year, gun-rights advocates wore them during hearings on a bill that would have required background checks for firearm sales at gun shows.
Two Santa Fe lawmakers say allowing guns everywhere in the Capitol is potentially dangerous and scares off some members of the public, and that it’s time to put a halt to it – starting with a change in Senate and House rules.
Sen. Peter Wirth and Rep. Brian Egolf, both Democrats, are sponsoring rule changes in their respective chambers that would ban firearms in the Senate and House chambers, the galleries where the public sits, the lounges where lawmakers relax, the rooms where committees meet and some hallways.
That would still leave much of the Capitol not covered by the prohibition, but the legislators say it’s a start.
It’s not a new notion. Former Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, tried a similar rule change for the Senate in 2012. The late Rep. Stephen Easley, D-Santa Fe, introduced legislation last year that would have banned guns everywhere in the building, with narrow exceptions.
Wirth and Egolf said they received complaints from constituents last year who wanted to attend committee meetings but were put off by the presence of firearms.
“They were intimidated,” said Egolf, who said he witnessed people showing up and then leaving. “I saw it happen.”
“When it starts to impact the democratic process, to me it’s a signal that we need to change,” Wirth said. “There were so many citizens legally carrying weapons in the committee rooms that people were afraid to bring their kids and were afraid to participate. And that’s not right.”
Both men are lawyers and they said guns should be banned in the Capitol for the same reason they’re prohibited in courthouses.
“People are dealing with extremely stressful personal issues. There’s high anxiety. I can assure you as a legislator I’ve seen exactly the same thing in this building,” Wirth said.
New Mexico is among only a few states that allow guns in their seats of government.
According to the most recent information available from the National Conference of State Legislatures, only three states other than New Mexico allow open carry and concealed carry in their statehouses. Six other states allow concealed carry. It’s not clear who might be carrying concealed handguns at any given time during the legislative session. By law, the names of concealed carry licensees cannot be disclosed.
Under a 2003 law, New Mexicans can be licensed to carry loaded, concealed handguns if they take training and pass criminal background checks.
For so-called open carry, there are no licensing or training requirements. And with some exceptions, it’s legal for New Mexicans to carry loaded weapons as long as they’re not concealed.