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Background checks face repeal effort

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Top House Republicans said Thursday that they are aiming to repeal a high-profile New Mexico gun background check bill via a rarely used voter referendum process.

But House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the effort to annul the legislation would be legally dubious and ultimately futile.

“They can spend their time on it if they want, but they’re not going to get anywhere with it,” Egolf told reporters.

The proposal that would expand background check requirements to nearly all gun purchases cleared both the House and Senate and is expected to be signed into law in the coming days by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who pushed for its passage.

But the measure, Senate Bill 8, has generated broad opposition from all but a few of the state’s 33 county sheriffs. In addition, 25 counties have passed “Second Amendment sanctuary” ordinances in opposition to gun-related bills pending at the Roundhouse.

Although the state’s three most populous counties – Bernalillo, Doña Ana and Santa Fe – have not joined the movement, top-ranking House GOP lawmakers said the outcry shows lawmakers have ignored the will of New Mexicans, especially those in rural parts of the state.

“It appears that what we’ve done is pass a law … that the citizenry is not behind,” House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, told the Journal. “This level of response requires that we take action.”

The voter referendum effort proposed by Montoya and House GOP floor leader James Townsend of Artesia has been infrequently used in New Mexico history.

Since statehood, three such attempts have been launched, and only one – in 1930 – was ultimately successful in repealing a state law, according to the Legislative Council Service.

Per the state Constitution, backers of this year’s effort would have to obtain valid signatures from more than 70,000 state voters – or at least 10 percent of those who voted in last year’s general election. There is also a geographic requirement that a certain amount of the signatures come from at least 25 counties.

If those thresholds are met, it would compel Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver to put the question of whether to accept or reject the law on the next general election ballot – likely in November 2020.

Both Montoya and Townsend insisted the repeal effort is not an attempt to circumvent the Legislature.

“This is part of the democratic process,” Montoya said.

However, Egolf pointed out that bills dealing with spending and public “peace, health or safety” are exempt from repeal under the constitutional referendum process. He said the bill to expand background check requirements would meet that definition.

“It appears House Republicans have not read the full Constitution,” he said, suggesting that GOP lawmakers are frustrated about Democrats’ control of the Legislature and all elected state offices.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, the state’s first-term Democratic governor, insisted the background check measure is “not an anti-Second Amendment Bill.”

“I would ask: ‘Why are House Republicans so desperately afraid of simple, non-invasive, easily obtainable background checks that will reduce lethal violence in our communities?’ “said Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s spokesman.

Although most sheriffs oppose the gun background check bill, some law enforcement agencies – including the Albuquerque Police Department – support it.

In addition, District Attorney Raúl Torrez of Bernalillo County has testified as an expert witness that the legislation is on solid legal ground.

Townsend also suggested similar efforts could be launched on other bills that have advanced despite Republican opposition, including a proposal to repeal a long-dormant state abortion ban.

“There is no doubt that rural folks are feeling they’re not being considered at all in the legislation that is being passed out of here,” he said.


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