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Senate OKs expanded background checks

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A gun background check bill backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham but opposed by most New Mexico county sheriffs cleared a key stumbling block Thursday, as members of the Senate voted 22-20 to pass the measure after more than three hours of debate.

The legislation, Senate Bill 8, is one of several gun bills that have drawn close scrutiny at the Roundhouse during this year’s 60-day session.

But it could have the best chance at being enacted into law, as it’s similar – but not identical – to a separate measure that cleared the House last week on a 41-25 vote.

The Senate bill would mandate that background checks be conducted before nearly all gun sales – including firearms purchased at gun shows and from online vendors. But it would exempt gun sales and transfers between close family members and sales between law enforcement officers.

Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, one of the bill’s sponsors, said about 20 states already have similar laws and argued it would not violate gun owners’ constitutional rights.

“I’m confident in carrying this legislation, because it does not impact the Second Amendment at all,” Martinez said during Thursday’s debate.

But critics described the proposal as impractical and misguided. Some also predicted the next effort by gun control advocates would be the creation of a state registry of gun owners.

“This bill makes good guys into criminals,” said Sen. William Sharer, a Farmington Republican.

The measure, along with several other gun-related bills, has drawn opposition from 29 of the state’s 33 county sheriffs and prompted at least two New Mexico counties – Quay and Socorro – to adopt ordinances suggesting they would not enforce the law. More such ordinances could be adopted in the coming days.

That could set up a legal showdown if the bill is signed into law, and some sheriffs who traveled to the Roundhouse for the Senate debate suggested they’re up for the fight.

“As the sheriff of that county, I will not allow that law to be enforced,” Chaves County Sheriff Mike Herrington told the Journal after Thursday’s vote.

On the other side of the issue, Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office last month, has urged lawmakers to approve the bill aimed at closing the so-called “gun show loophole,” telling senators in a message Thursday that the legislation would save lives.

A Governor’s Office staffer was present for much of Thursday’s debate, and Lujan Grisham cited the first anniversary of a high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students dead.

“With the passage of this legislation, we are one step closer to preventing that horror from happening again in the state of New Mexico,” the governor said after Thursday’s vote.

New Mexico has consistently been higher than the national average for firearm deaths per capita.

As of 2017, the state had the nation’s 10th-highest rate – at 18.5 per 100,000 people – of deaths caused by firearms, according to state Department of Health data.

However, some senators suggested Thursday that the bill might not actually lead to fewer firearm fatalities.

“I just feel like this is another one of those laws that is passed to address something but it won’t solve anything,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.

But supporters of the legislation, who tacked on several amendments before voting to approve it, described the proposal as a common-sense measure that could help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he willingly underwent a background check – conducted by running an applicant’s name through a federal database – when purchasing a firearm.

“It would bother me to know that same background check doesn’t apply to everyone,” Cervantes said.

Four Democratic senators ultimately joined the chamber’s Republican members in casting “no” votes – Sens. George Muñoz of Gallup, Gabriel Ramos of Silver City, John Arthur Smith of Deming and Clemente Sanchez of Grants.

If one additional Democrat had voted against the bill, it would have been up to Lt. Gov. Howie Morales to break the tie.

Morales, a Democrat and former state senator, indicated he probably would have voted in favor of the legislation.

Meanwhile, previous attempts to pass bills expanding background check requirements have fallen short at the Roundhouse.

That includes a 2013 measure that passed the House but ended up dying on the final day of that year’s session on the Senate floor.

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