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Capitol prepares for emotional gun debate

Vanessa Alarid holds a photo of her cousin, Celena Alarid, who bought a pistol and shot herself in the head after a previous suicide attempt. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Six weeks ago, Celena Alarid pulled the trigger.

Police found her body at home in Albuquerque, soon after family members had asked officers to check on her. Alarid, 41, had a history of suicide attempts, had access to a firearm and had shown signs of depression.

Celena Alarid’s death is one of many heartbreaking stories New Mexico lawmakers will hear about Tuesday as they dive into one of the most emotional debates of the session – whether to enact a red flag gun law, which would allow the temporary seizure of firearms from individuals deemed an immediate threat to themselves or others.

A prominent lobbyist, Vanessa Alarid, will share the story of her cousin, Celena, as she appears before legislative panels and pushes for passage of the Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act.

“I would have gone to the court, petitioned for intervention and had that firearm removed – guaranteed,” Vanessa Alarid said in an interview at the Capitol. “It would have saved her life.”

Opponents are also sharing their stories.

Audra Brown, a 30-year-old small-business owner from Roosevelt County, said she struggled with depression in her early 20s. But possession of a gun, she said, made her feel safer and had a therapeutic effect.

A trained marksman, Brown said she fears a red flag law could have made her a target, putting her at risk of losing her firearms.

She has testified in opposition to the bill in previous years.

“I didn’t feel safe going out without a firearm,” Brown said in an interview. “It helped with my depression. It helped with my mental state.”

Extreme risk orders

New Mexico lawmakers are expected to dive into the firearms debate Tuesday during a meeting of the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

The proposal, Senate Bill 5, would establish an Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act, also known as a red flag law. Seventeen other states have such laws.

The legislation would allow a relative, household member or law enforcement officer to file a sworn affidavit and petition in state District Court seeking an order to prohibit someone from possessing firearms. The petitioner would have to disclose whether there’s any other pending legal action between the two parties.

Under the proposal, a law enforcement officer could seek an emergency 15-day order requiring a person to relinquish any firearms.

There’s also an option for a one-year firearm prohibition, based on a preponderance of evidence.

Supporters describe the proposal as a common-sense way to save lives by taking guns from people who are an immediate threat.

Opponents say the law is ripe for abuse and could result in innocent people losing their guns.

Suicide rate

Suicide risk is a critical part of the debate. Most gun deaths in the state are a result of suicide.

Ten counties in New Mexico – largely covering rural areas – have suicide rates at least twice the national average, which is 14 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.

Overall, the state suicide rate is 21.9 deaths per 100,000 people, or more than 50% higher than the national average.

A 2018 study that examined data from Indiana and Connecticut found that “risk-based firearm seizure laws” were associated with reduced suicide rates. Aaron Kivisto, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Indianapolis, was a co-author of the study.

‘Nothing we could do’

But personal stories – not just data – will soon fill the Roundhouse.

Vanessa Alarid, a lobbyist for Everytown for Gun Safety, said she begged her cousin, Celena, in person and over the phone to give up her firearm in the days before her death. She was showing signs of depression and had recently had her stomach pumped after a suicide attempt.

Then she obtained a pistol.

“She told us all she wanted to hurt herself,” Vanessa Alarid said, “and there was nothing we could do about it.”

Celena shot herself in the head in mid-December. An obituary said she cherished time with her family, including her daughter.

Celena and Vanessa, roughly a year apart in age, had grown up as sisters and shared a bedroom in high school.

Brown, the businesswoman from eastern New Mexico, said she lives in a rural area without good cellphone service. She’s a writer, artist and leathersmith who also works in the cattle business.

Her episode of depression passed, she said, but she fears someone could petition to take her firearms because of a grudge or misunderstanding.

Possession of a firearm, she said, is a matter of safety in isolated parts of New Mexico where you can’t just call out to a neighbor for help.

“I have a sort of personal stake in this,” said Brown, who’s seeking the Republican nomination in the 3rd Congressional District. “I live alone in the country. I’m a young single woman.”

Political landscape

The legislation is backed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who added it to the agenda this session.

Co-sponsoring the bill are three Democrats – Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, Rep. Daymon Ely of Corrales and Rep. Joy Garratt of Albuquerque.

A similar measure cleared the House last year, in one of the most emotional nights of the session – on a 39-30 vote. Legislators drew on their own family histories as they spoke for and against the bill.

It passed its first Senate committee that year but stalled in the second, failing to reach the Senate floor.

The Senate, consequently, is key to the bill’s future this session.

Democrats hold substantial majorities in both chambers, but they sometimes clash on priorities.

Some Senate Democrats, for example, occasionally join with Republicans to defeat legislation sought by more liberal lawmakers in the House.

The margin on the red flag law could be close. Last year, for example, a separate firearms bill – centering on background checks – barely cleared the Senate, 22-20.

In case of a tie, Democratic Lt. Gov. Howie Morales would cast the deciding vote.

Lujan Grisham acknowledged to reporters that getting the bill to her desk will be hard but said she’s confident it will happen.

“It will not stop all gun violence,” she said. “It will not stop all suicides. But if it saves one life, it’s worth it.”

She also cited the 2012 death of her cousin, who struggled with severe mental illness for most of his adult life, by suicide as an example of the type of situation the law could address.

“We have to be courageous enough to try the things that make a difference,” Lujan Grisham said.

New Mexico sheriffs, in turn, emerged last year as a major force of opposition to the bill.

Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace, chairman of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, said the proposal could lead to dangerous confrontations when law enforcement officers try to collect someone’s firearms. A red flag law, he said, isn’t the right strategy for combating suicide.

“Where do you stop?” Mace asked. “Do you take away the car keys, the needles, the drugs – every other tool that’s used to commit suicide?”

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.

 

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