Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – In the aftermath of a mass shooting just miles from its southern border, New Mexico could move to toughen its hate crime penalties, expand its mental health system, create a new anti-terrorism law enforcement unit and improve data-sharing about potential threats.
Those were among the ideas touted by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, other top state officials, lawmakers and county sheriffs, after a four-hour domestic terrorism summit held Wednesday at the state Capitol.
“We all understand there’s a clear and present danger facing the state of New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham told reporters after emerging from the closed-door summit.
After a briefing from FBI agents and other groups, the first-term Democratic governor said there was no reason to believe New Mexico is at greater risk of future mass shootings than any other state.
But she said hypercharged political rhetoric and shortcomings in key areas – including data sharing and mental health services – could make the state vulnerable.
“This is a state that is still woefully unprepared when it comes to behavioral health,” the governor said.
Some parts of the multipronged plan can be enacted in the coming weeks.
For instance, Lujan Grisham directed state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Secretary Jackie Lindsay to start enrolling all 33 county sheriffs in a data-sharing program so that individuals deemed a potential risk could be flagged and monitored.
Other items will be added to the agenda of the 30-day legislative session that starts in January, as Lujan Grisham indicated she does not plan to call a special legislative session before the year’s end.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, recently urged the governor to call a special session but said Wednesday that he’s comfortable with the Lujan Grisham administration’s pace, calling it the “right approach.”
“We now have a road map for what we’ll do in the next session,” said Egolf, who added that an interim legislative committee will begin reviewing and fine-tuning potential bills over the next four months.
Those measures could include increasing the criminal penalty for those convicted of hate crimes. Under the state’s criminal code, a one-year extension can currently be tacked onto the prison sentence for most felony offenders if their crime is proved to be motivated by the victim’s race, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham said a ban on assault weapons was not among the issues discussed Wednesday, though she said gun-related legislation could also be on next year’s legislative agenda.
At least one county sheriff who clashed with Lujan Grisham and top Democratic lawmakers over gun-related legislation during this year’s 60-day session, said Wednesday that those participating in the summit had – at least for now – set aside their political differences and were focused on working together.
“We may look at it differently, but at least we’re all at the table,” San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari told the Journal.
He also said sheriffs had been working with the Democratic sponsor of a proposed “red flag” bill toward a possible compromise. In its original form, the bill would have allowed courts to order the temporary taking of guns from someone deemed an immediate threat.
Lujan Grisham organized the domestic terrorism summit after the mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 people dead. The 21-year old allegedly responsible for carrying out the attack reportedly wanted to target people of Mexican descent.
New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said before Wednesday’s summit that the state already has enough laws in place but needs do a better job of enforcing them.
“I’m always nervous when we try to make laws that affect people who aren’t a threat,” said Pearce, who ran against Lujan Grisham in last year’s gubernatorial race.
But Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said state officials and lawmakers need to take action in an attempt to make the state safer.
“We have to have the information to connect the dots,” Wirth said.