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SANTA FE, N.M. — Sixteen-year-old Sophia Lussiez says it shouldn’t have to be the job of students to fight to protect children against gun violence.
“Because we should already have it in place,” said the senior at Desert Academy. “We should already be safe.”
She believes New Mexico is “slacking” on the issue.
Now, Lussiez and her friend Julia Mazal are working on state legislation aimed at preventing children from accessing firearms, to help stop incidents such as school shootings or suicides.
The Child Access Prevention Act, which is planned for presentation during the next legislative session in January, would hold New Mexico gun owners liable for not properly securing weapons away from children 17 or younger.
Sanctions for violators could depend on whether the gun was loaded or unloaded and how the minor who obtained the firearm used it.
“There’s a certain responsibility that has to be known when you own a gun,” said Mazal, also 16, who will be a junior at United World College near Las Vegas, N.M., in the fall. “As the sophistication of our guns evolve, so should our laws.”
The two teens will be attending a legislative committee meeting Tuesday at the University of New Mexico, where one of the discussion topics is “Gun Violence As A Public Health Issue.”
The girls also are going over gun violence studies and laws in other states, using sources such as the Giffords Law Center and the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, and with guidance from Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence.
The bill Mazal and Lussiez are working on is set to be sponsored by Rep. Linda Trujillo, a former Santa Fe school board member.
“I’m going to have to say that I haven’t had someone approach me to introduce legislation that is under the age of voting,” Trujillo said about working with the teens. “I think it is a first.”
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have laws on negligent storage similar to those Mazal and Lussiez would like to see enacted in New Mexico. The Giffords Law Center cites various studies conducted over the past 15 years that indicate connections between child gun-access prevention measures, and the reduction of teen suicides and hospital visits for nonfatal gun injuries to children.
Viscoli cites a 2004 study from the U.S. Department of Education that found almost 70 percent of attackers in school shootings had acquired their weapons from their home or from a relative’s home.
In New Mexico, according to data Viscoli compiled from the New Mexico Department of Health, 85 deaths among people up to 18 years old in New Mexico from 2012 to 2016 were firearms-related, split almost evenly between homicides and suicides.
“I don’t understand what else would need to happen for them (state legislators) to understand this is a serious thing,” Lussiez said.
“One thing I really want to push is they’re the people that are supposed to protect us, and they haven’t,” she said.
The teens won’t be starting from scratch. As an outline, Mazal and Lussiez are using a bill New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence tried to pass in 2015.
The bill called for penalties for firearms owners who didn’t keep their guns locked away or rendered inoperable by a trigger lock when they “knew or should have known that a minor would have access to the firearm or when an injury or death resulted from a minor obtaining access to a firearm.” The bill died in committee.
“The climate just wasn’t there,” Viscoli said. Now, she said, the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February and the student activism that has emerged from it is a “tipping point.”
Mazal said she and Lussiez would like to see the new proposal be stronger, upping penalties for violators. While the highest criminal charge in the 2015 bill was a misdemeanor, the teens want a low-level felony charge when a minor gets an unsecured weapon and harms someone, with misdemeanor charges or fines for other violations that don’t lead to violence.
“We want to make as much of an impact with this opportunity as we can,” Mazal said.
Rep. Trujillo said nothing is set in stone about penalties or whether the bill would say negligent gun owners could also be sued in civil court.
“We’re still talking about it,” Trujillo said. “We’re still having dialogue of how that’s going to go.” She said she is looking forward to receiving lawmaker feedback at the interim committee meeting next week.
Reform, not control
Mazal and Lussiez met while attending Desert Academy and spent time together as members of the school’s Amnesty International Club, founded by Lussiez with Mazal as its first member. That led them to join a “student advocacy union” with kids from other local schools, including Santa Fe High and Santa Fe Prep.
Inspired by the students from Parkland, the group organized an April 20 student protest at the Roundhouse, where panel discussions were held with legislators about gun violence.
“Sophia and I right away were like, ‘What’s next?’ ” Mazal recalled. She mentioned the idea of passing a bill as somewhat of a joke, but then Viscoli encouraged them to go for it and later introduced them to Trujillo.
Particularly with suicides or accidental shootings, Lussiez said, in many cases kids “get the gun through their parents or friends or people leaving it out.”
She cited a case last year where police said a Santa Fe High student who wrote up plans for a school shooting told them he would have carried out the shooting but didn’t have a gun.
Lussiez also said that in a divisive political climate, she views a bill like the one she and Mazal are working on with Trujillo as the most “reasonable” and “common-sense” measure they could advocate.
“It won’t take anyone’s guns away,” Mazal said. “It would just promote safe storage of them.”
Gun control legislation has struggled in the Roundhouse over the past several years.
Earlier this year, a proposed bill to outlaw “bump stocks, devices that enable semiautomatic firearms to shoot more quickly, was introduced, but didn’t advance.
In 2013 and 2017, bills that would have required background checks for those buying at gun shows were stopped. A 2017 bill that would have imposed limitations on firearm access for subjects of domestic violence protection orders passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by the governor.
Trujillo says the developing bill is different. She said it isn’t a “gun control” measure – she refers to child access prevention, or CAP, as “gun reform” and emphasized that many states already have some form of CAP.
“This legislation has nothing to do with any of the concerns people have,” said Trujillo. “Your 2nd Amendment rights are still there. We’re just saying the numbers show unlocked guns that kids have access to are dangerous.”
Mazal and Lussiez are hoping that being children themselves gives the proposal more weight in the eyes of lawmakers.
And recent events also give Mazal hope. She mentioned the Santa Fe school board’s April vote to reject continued funding from the National Rifle Association for a high school ROTC program. Several students spoke up in favor of the change.
“I think that shows that people are starting to listen a little bit,” she said.