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Three gun measures advance in Roundhouse

Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton and other law enforcement officers carry guns while speaking earlier in this year’s 60-day session against a bill that would require background checks for nearly all gun purchases in the state. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill that would expand New Mexico background check requirements to cover nearly all gun sales inched toward Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk Saturday, despite opposition from the National Rifle Association and most county sheriffs statewide.

Two other measures dealing with access to firearms also advanced as New Mexico, which has one of the nation’s highest gun ownership rates, moved closer to enshrining new gun laws after years of debate.

A spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, said the governor supports all three bills and is hopeful the background check legislation will arrive at her desk soon so she can sign it into law.

“The governor is entirely confident that this common-sense gun legislation will withstand any potential legal scrutiny as they are entirely constitutional, despite what some critics may insist,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Sackett said.

But critics described the proposed gun laws as overreaching and ineffective.

“We cannot legislate evil out of men’s hearts,” said San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari during a Saturday meeting of the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

The gun-related measures have drawn opposition from all but a few of the state’s 33 county sheriffs. In addition, at least 24 counties have passed “Second Amendment sanctuary” ordinances in opposition to the legislation pending at the Roundhouse.

However, it’s unclear whether such ordinances would stand up in court if challenged, and some law enforcement agencies – including the Albuquerque Police Department – are supporting the background check measure.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, the bill’s co-sponsor, said the legislation is on solid constitutional ground.

“This has been done in about 20 other states, and we feel confident we’ve struck a responsible balance,” Wirth told the Journal.

The proposal, Senate Bill 8, narrowly passed the Senate on Feb. 14 and cleared its second House committee Saturday when the House Judiciary Committee voted 8-4 along party lines – with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed – to send it on to the full House.

It 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.

Republican lawmakers argued during Saturday’s hearing that the legislation would be difficult to enforce and would not reduce gun violence.

“I don’t believe criminals will follow it,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia. “I think this bill is about control.”

He also said more children statewide are killed playing football than are killed by guns, though he did not provide data to back up that assertion.

New Mexico’s rate of firearm deaths per capita has been consistently higher than the national average.

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.

Previous attempts to pass bills expanding background check requirements have fallen short at the Roundhouse, with some moderate Democrats from rural New Mexico joining with Republicans to thwart the proposals.

That includes a 2013 measure that passed the House but died on the Senate floor on the final day of the session.

But this year could be different, since Democrats expanded their majority in the House in last year’s election and Lujan Grisham included gun control measures in her platform while running for governor.

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