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Chaos at the Capitol as House passes gun legislation

SANTA FE – Procedural warfare erupted on the floor of the state House late Friday – as legislative staffers locked doors to the chamber and chased down missing lawmakers – before Democrats pushed through legislation that would require a background check on nearly every firearm sale in New Mexico.

The dispute started when House Republicans moved for a “call of the house” – a procedure that allows the Legislature’s sergeant-at-arms staff to return any missing lawmakers to the floor, by force if necessary, for a vote.

But at least one Republican, David Gallegos of Eunice, was absent and didn’t return to the floor within 15 minutes.

The House couldn’t move forward with debate on the gun legislation until every member, except those excused, were returned to the floor.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, accused Republicans of stalling and playing games. Democrats had returned to the House for the call, he said, but it was a Republican who was missing.

House Democrats eventually used a procedural move to excuse Gallegos from the call, close debate and move to a final vote on the bill.

Chaos ensued as the proposal, House Bill 8, passed on a 41-25 vote.

“I’m just extremely disappointed with what happened,” Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, told his colleagues as the activity settled down. “It makes me wonder why I’m even here.”

Egolf responded that Democrats had acted appropriately to keep working.

“The call was put on for the purpose of stifling debate because (a Republican) was knowingly absent, and we wanted to proceed,” he said.

Republicans later lifted the call of the house and threatened to leave the chamber and not return until Monday. But Democrats immediately placed another call on the House – keeping all the members present locked in the chamber.

“Lock that door!” House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, shouted to keep Republicans from leaving.

With the doors locked, the House continued debating other firearms legislation.

The call was eventually lifted again, allowing members to come and go as they normally do. It’s common for lawmakers, for example, to leave briefly throughout debate to visit the bathroom or cafeteria.

House Bill 8 would make it a crime to sell a firearm without conducting a background check, with certain exceptions. Sales between two law-enforcement officers, for example, would be exempt from the requirement.

Federally licensed firearms dealers already must conduct background checks. But the proposal would expand the requirement to other sales – such as a transaction between two private individuals.

Supporters said people wanting to sell and buy a gun would meet at a licensed dealer who would do the background check.

Opponents, in turn, said people in rural areas might have to make lengthy drives to reach a licensed dealer.

The proposal now heads over to the Senate, where a similar proposal has already advanced to the floor after clearing two committees.

House Bill 8 passed the House largely along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

“We live in an age where gun violence has touched almost everyone,” said Rep. Debbie Sariñana, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “This is the reality our kids live with every single day.”

Four Democrats crossed party lines to vote in opposition: Harry Garcia of Grants, Patricio Ruiloba of Albuquerque, Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde and Candie Sweetser of Deming.

All Republicans present voted against it.

“All I see this bill doing is making it more onerous for responsible gun owners to uphold their Second Amendment rights,” Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, said, “and we all took this oath to uphold the Constitution.”

House Bill 8 is just part of a package of gun bills moving through the House.

The House late Friday also voted 37-28 to pass House Bill 87, which would prohibit someone convicted of battery on a household member – among certain other crimes – from having a firearm. That measure, sponsored in the House by Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, now moves on to the Senate.

A third proposal, not yet acted on by the full House, would allow family members or police to seek court orders to take guns temporarily from someone they believe is an immediate threat.

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