Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Sophia Lussiez finally feels heard.
Almost a year ago, when students gathered outside the state Capitol for the March for Our Lives demonstration after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Lussiez and other teens gave speeches pushing for gun control measures in New Mexico.
Their rally was important, she said last week, but at that point, to lawmakers who work inside the building, they were just anonymous kids with microphones.
“Now they have to look at us and listen to us, and I’m directly speaking to them instead of yelling outside their office,” the 17-year-old senior from Desert Academy said after speaking at a House committee hearing on Tuesday.
She and several other local teens have teamed up with New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence to push for a bill intended to help prevent children getting access to firearms. The group has also been to the Roundhouse to testify in support of other gun control measures.
Their bill, which proposes adding firearm-securing standards to the state’s Children’s Code, passed Tuesday through the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee in a 3-2 vote, clearing an initial hurdle toward a floor vote.
Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, said this is the first time her organization has worked with young people to push for specific legislation. She called their activism a “game-changer.”
“They haven’t given up,” Viscoli said. “They show up and they get it done.”
Back in August, Lussiez and fellow student Julia Mazal spoke to the Journal about working with Viscoli’s group and Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, on a child access prevention bill to help curb school shootings, accidental injuries and suicides. New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence unsuccessfully tried to pass a similar bill in 2015.
With Mazal now away at boarding school, Lussiez said she has tapped friends and co-leaders of Santa Fe’s Student Advocacy Union for support. During Tuesday’s committee meeting, 17-year-old New Mexico School for the Arts senior Maki Omori was another witness. Hannah Laga Abram, 18, a senior at the Santa Fe Waldorf School, testified from the audience.
“It’s just such an important issue, it wasn’t ever a question of do I want to work on this,” Laga Abram said before the committee meeting. “It’s not really a thing you have a choice in; it’s an opportunity you have.”
Lussiez said she didn’t know much about the legislative process before this year’s session. She said she has been surprised at how many steps it takes for bills to pass, particularly the number of committees they must get through.
Both Lussiez and Omori said they weren’t expecting the level of opposition that gun control bills have attracted, noting lines of speakers out the door to speak on behalf of the other side.
“… I go to a really liberal school. I’m constantly feeling support from the adults and people around me,” said Omori. “And coming here, there’s a lot of people who directly disagree with us and say things I really don’t believe in. There’s so many more of them … and there’s are so few of us. That was surprising, not really disheartening though. It was a reality check.”
House Republicans this week put out a news release calling the bill the teens support part of a continuing effort by Democrats “to penalize law-abiding gun owners.”
A ‘reasonable’ standard
The bill that the five-member House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted on Tuesday was a substitute for House Bill 130 as originally filed by Trujillo. The substitute proposes an amendment to the New Mexico Children’s Code’s definition of a “neglected child” to include anyone whose parent, custodian or guardian leaves a firearm, loaded or unloaded, somewhere they know or should have known the child could have unsupervised access to the gun, “unless the parent, guardian or custodian takes reasonable action to secure the firearm against access by the child.”
Securing a firearm is defined as steps that a “reasonable person” would take, including but not limited to keeping the gun in a locked container or with a trigger lock.
The original bill tiered criminal penalties and civil liability for gun owners who fail to properly secure a firearm. Exceptions were outlined for supervised minors using the firearm for hunting or sport, self defense, or if the property where the gun was stored was entered unlawfully by the child.
Trujillo told the Journal she changed the bill after feedback from the Attorney General’s Office that said the original HB 130 could have overlapped with existing criminal statutes against child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which have higher penalties.
If the substitute passes, reports that a child is in danger due to an improperly secured firearm would be referred to the state Children, Youth and Families Department. If the claim is substantiated, according to Trujillo, CYFD could then help the family initiate a safety plan to make sure any firearms are “reasonably” secure.
Trujillo told the committee it would be “highly unlikely” for CYFD to take any further enforcement action beyond that.
The only potential charge that comes from violating the Children’s Code is a petty misdemeanor for interfering with the protection of a child.
“It really just sets out a standard that we expect parents to live up to and gives CYFD the ability to work with the family, come up with a reasonable solution … so that your child is not going to hurt somebody or themselves,” Trujillo said of the substitute bill.
During their statements to the committee, Lussiez and Omori cited statistics from studies conducted over the past two decades indicating that unsecured firearms play a role in child suicides, accidental deaths and school shootings.
Lussiez also cited a figure, which Viscoli compiled from New Mexico Department of Public Health statistics, that 110 people ages 1-18 died in the state from firearms in 2012-17.
“I’m asking you because there are … friends who are missing from me because a firearm was too easy to access because there’s no standard or punishment for negligent storage,” Omori said in her testimony.
“… It was too easy for them in a moment of weakness or an impulse to kill themselves or to harm others. It’s too easy for people and children in New Mexico to accidentally or on purpose harm themselves or others.” She said outside the committee that she’d lost a friend who’d gained access to a household gun.
‘We cannot legislate evil’
“This isn’t about taking away people’s guns,” Lussiez also told the committee. “This isn’t about infringing on people’s rights. It’s about being the responsible gun owner we hear so much about. It’s about keeping our students safe. It’s about making New Mexico a state where I can feel safe and want to raise kids.”
Several people spoke in opposition to the bill, including Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace, who serves on the board of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association. He said there are already laws to prevent child abuse and minors from possessing handguns, with certain exceptions.
Mace said enforcement would be difficult. He referred to a container that another opponent of the legislation showed to the committee and which was easy to pry open, despite its lock. Mace also noted that New Mexico does not have a firearm registry to match guns to owners.
“We cannot legislate … evil out of people’s minds,” said Mace. “No matter what we do, they’re still going to gain access, they’re still going to try to commit that crime.”
Republican Reps. Candy Spence Ezzell of Roswell and Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras wanted to table the bill until the committee got updated responses on the substitute measure from such agencies as CYFD and the Attorney General’s office.
Ezzell said the bill would “criminalize” parents. She and Schmedes also took issue with the use of the word “reasonable” to describe measures an adult would be required take to secure a weapon, noting cultural differences between New Mexico’s urban and rural areas.
“The different scenarios of how different people live, and how people raise their family and secure their home should be respected,” Schmedes said. “I think … this law leaves it too open-ended (in terms of) what’s reasonable for some and unreasonable for others.”
The teens were commended by both critics and supporters of the bill for their participation in the hearing. Following the committee’s vote – Ezzell and Schmedes were outvoted by three Democrats – they said they’ll be back for an upcoming Judiciary Committee meeting.
Though Omori, Lussiez and Laga Abram noted frustration with the legislative process – Omori felt lawmakers’ criticism of the bill came from an “emotional,” not a factual place, and Lussiez said it was difficult to remain silent at times – they described their firsthand experience as inspiring.
“I see the waves, just the three of us, have made in our community,” Omori. “And we’re not … doing anything official yet, but I don’t know, it’s made me hopeful in some ways because at least there’s a little crack in the door and we can nudge our way through and make things better.”