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Petition against gun law rejected

Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton speaks in a House committee meeting Thursday against a proposal to require background checks for most gun sales. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton speaks in a House committee meeting Thursday against a proposal to require background checks for most gun sales. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver on Thursday rejected a petition aimed at repealing New Mexico’s new background check law for gun sales.

The petition, filed by Republican lawmakers in the state House, sought to put the legislation before voters through a rarely used referendum process. No law has been repealed by referendum in New Mexico since 1930, according to legislative staff.

Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said Thursday that the state Constitution prohibits petitions for the repeal of “laws providing for the preservation of the public peace, health, and safety” – a finding that’s been repeatedly upheld by the courts, she said.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said Thursday that he and other opponents of the law are considering their options, including the possibility of legal action.

“We have had overwhelming input from Republicans, Democrats and independents who have urged us to continue this battle,” Townsend said in an interview. “Apparently, it has hit a nerve. People want their input considered.”

At issue is legislation expanding New Mexico’s background check requirement for gun sales. Under Senate Bill 8, the state will require background checks before nearly any firearm sale in the state, including transactions between private individuals. It goes into effect in July.

Licensed dealers already must complete the checks.

The legislation ignited opposition in rural parts of the state, as many counties declared themselves a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”

Toulouse Oliver said she consulted with the state Attorney General’s Office on how to handle the referendum petition.

In a letter to Townsend, she said the petition had a number of technical deficiencies, in addition to the constitutional exemption that bars repeal of laws on public safety.

Supporters of the legislation, she noted, repeatedly argued that it was aimed at promoting public safety and saving lives. Testimony and debate during the legislative session, Toulouse Oliver said, demonstrated that the law “bears a valid, reasonable relationship to the preservation of public peace, health or safety, and it was clearly enacted by the legislature for those purposes.”

Townsend and other opponents of the bill argued that it would do nothing to protect people from violence. Criminals obtain guns by stealing them or buying them on the black market, they said, and the background checks requirement would simply interfere with the rights of regular citizens.

In launching the petition, House Republicans said the wave of counties and sheriffs opposed to the law showed the Legislature had failed to listen to the will of the public.

The state Constitution allows people to suspend or annul laws passed by the Legislature, but with some exceptions. Legislation establishing the state budget, for example, is exempt, as are laws on “public peace, health or safety.”

To secure a spot on the ballot, opponents would have to gather a certain number of signatures in counties throughout New Mexico.

Before the petition is circulated, however, the secretary of state must agree that it meets the legal requirements for a referendum.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, signed the background checks bill into law two weeks ago. She had highlighted the proposal as part of her first State of the State speech shortly after taking office in January.

“We all have a constitutional right to be safe in our homes and communities,” Lujan Grisham said this month as she approved the legislation.

Sen. Richard Martinez, an Española Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said at the signing ceremony that the legislation “has nothing to do with the Second Amendment – it’s all about saving lives.”

The bill requires background checks – to ensure the person isn’t a felon or otherwise prohibited by law from having a gun. The legislation allows exceptions for sales between two close family members or sales between law enforcement officers.

Gifts and loans are also exempt from the requirement for a background check.

Supporters of the legislation said people who want to sell a gun would arrange to meet the buyer at, say, a licensed firearms dealer, who would do the background check. The dealer could charge up to $35.

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