Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers plunged into the national gun debate Thursday as Democrats began moving a package of bills through the Legislature that would expand requirements for background checks to nearly every kind of firearms sale, among other new regulations.
Legislators heard hours of testimony from teenagers nervous about their safety at school and from gun owners worried about their constitutional rights.
“I want to feel safe at school, and I want to be able to learn without fear,” Santa Fe High School student Vivian Avery, 16, told a House committee Thursday.
She was among a group of doctors, students and victims of crime who spoke in favor of background-check legislation.
But the proposal, House Bill 8, ran into intense opposition from firearms instructors, ranchers and others.
Sheriffs from across New Mexico – carrying cowboy hats and sidearms – turned out in force to argue that it would be impossible to enforce the measure and that it would do nothing to keep criminals from buying guns.
“This is a ‘feel good’ piece of legislation that provides no means of enforcement or mechanism to verify a background check is conducted,” Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace said.
In the end, the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee passed the bill 3-2 along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. It now heads to the House Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before it reaches the House floor.
A similar background check bill, Senate Bill 8, also moved forward Thursday, clearing the Senate Public Affairs Committee on a 4-3 vote.
That legislation is sponsored by Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, and Senate Democratic floor leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe.
House Bill 8 would make it a crime to sell a firearm without conducting a background check. Federally licensed firearms dealers already must conduct background checks.
But the proposal would apply in other circumstances, such as a private sale between two individuals who know each other or meet up after, say, arranging the sale through a classified ad.
There would be some exceptions, such as sales to a law enforcement agency.
Supporters said it would be at least one step toward keeping guns out of the hands of people prohibited from buying them.
“It’s not a perfect bill. It will not by itself solve the problem of gun violence,” said District Attorney Raúl Torrez, the top state prosecutor in Bernalillo County. But “I think it’s time for us to take a stand.”
Opponents said the proposal would be a burden on people who want to follow the law and entirely ignored by criminals or others who know they wouldn’t pass a background check.
Albuquerque resident William English said the bill would cost law-abiding gun owners roughly $45 per transaction because they’d have to pay a federal dealer to handle the background check.
The fees “constitute a poll tax on a constitutional right,” English said.
New political landscape
The two background check measures are just one piece of a broader package of firearms legislation generating debate this session in the Roundhouse – where lawmakers are often skeptical of new restrictions on gun ownership.
But the political landscape is changing, as Democrats returned to the Capitol this year with increased strength, having expanded their majority in the state House and gained control of the Governor’s Office. Democrats also hold a majority in the Senate.
During her State of the State address this month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called on lawmakers to sign off on gun control measures.
However, gun-related legislation has generally had trouble clearing both chambers in past sessions. At least one session ended with a Senate filibuster to prevent action on a firearms background check bill.
Journal Capitol Bureau chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.