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Despite drama, background check bill remains on track

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal to require background checks before almost any gun sale in New Mexico inched closer to passage Tuesday – but with some political drama.

The legislation, Senate Bill 8, narrowly cleared the Senate two weeks ago and is now mowing forward in the House, potentially its last stop before reaching Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a supporter of the proposal who on Tuesday took to social media to accuse gun control opponents of “hyperbole” and “fearmongering” on the bill and other gun control measures.

The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee endorsed the background check bill on a party-line vote of 3-2 Tuesday – after a Republican lawmaker walked out, slammed the door behind her and later returned for the vote.

Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, accused Democrats of trying to stifle her voice. She left for about five minutes before coming back and holding up a sign that said “no” to register her vote.

The dust-up didn’t slow down the legislation. Senate Bill 8 now heads to the House Judiciary Committee and, if passed there, on to the House floor.

The legislation appears to be in good position to make it through the Legislature before the session ends March 16. A similar version of the bill has already passed the House, suggesting the Senate version would succeed, too.

The bill would require a background check before nearly any gun sale, including between two individuals. Licensed dealers already must do the checks, but supporters of Senate Bill 8 are hoping to capture sales between two individuals who, say, arrange the transaction on their own.

There would be exceptions for sales or transfers between two close family members or sales between law enforcement officers. Antiques and inoperable firearms would also be exempt.

Under the bill, people who want to sell a gun would arrange for a licensed dealer to do the background check. The dealer could charge up to $35.

Second Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez, left, shakes hands with Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, after he and Rep. Debra Sarinana, D-Albuquerque, right, got an amendment to SB 8, a bill that would require background checks on almost all private gun sales in the state, through the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, Tuesday February 26, 2019. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Second Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez, left, shakes hands with Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, after he and Rep. Debra Sarinana, D-Albuquerque, right, got an amendment to SB 8, a bill that would require background checks on almost all private gun sales in the state, through the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, Tuesday February 26, 2019. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. Richard Martinez, an Española Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s about saving lives. It’s not about taking gun rights or violating the Second Amendment.”

The proposal has drawn opposition from many sheriffs throughout New Mexico, and about 20 counties have declared themselves “sanctuary counties” for Second Amendment rights, opponents said.

Doctors, students and victims of crime have turned out on the other side, describing the bill as a common-sense way to make it harder for criminals to obtain guns.

Rep. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, questioned a provision in the Senate legislation that would prohibit licensed dealers from “unreasonably” refusing to carry out the background check.

“We don’t force people to participate in business transactions,” he said.

Martinez said the proposal would still give dealers some leeway to turn away sellers and buyers, as long as they have a reasonable basis for the decision.

Tuesday’s meeting took place in a cramped committee room at the Roundhouse, filled with both supporters and opponents.

The chairwoman of the committee, Democrat Liz Thomson of Albuquerque, urged people to focus their comment on the parts of the Senate legislation that are new – in other words, that weren’t part of the background check bill that had already been debated and passed in the House.

Ezzell, the Republican from Roswell, assailed the proposal as unenforceable and unconstitutional. She held up copies of the U.S. and New Mexico constitutions at one point.

Eventually, she raised the prospect of marijuana legalization – a separate proposal pending in the Legislature this year – and Thomson banged the gavel and directed Ezzell to focus her comments on the bill at hand.

“If our voice is not going to be heard,” Ezzell said, “I’m done.”

The door banged shut as she left.

The hearing continued without her for about five minutes, before she returned. When it was time to vote, she held up a sign that said “no” in bold letters.

Gov. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office this year, has called on lawmakers to pass the bill.

“I’m not daunted by obstacles, whether it’s NRA propaganda, rogue sheriffs throwing a childish pity party or bad-faith critics,” she said Tuesday on Twitter. “Legislative leaders and I will continue to fight the scourge of gun violence in our communities.”

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