Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A hotly contested bill allowing for court-ordered firearm seizures from New Mexicans deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others is one step closer to a decisive Senate floor vote.
The Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act, also known as the red flag gun bill, passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote Tuesday, with majority Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, one of the bill’s sponsors, cited last year’s shooting rampage in El Paso – in which Hispanics were allegedly targeted – and New Mexico’s high rates of gun deaths and suicide as reasons to enact the legislation.
“It’s time that New Mexico provide a mechanism for law enforcement and family members to protect themselves when individuals announce their intentions to do harm,” Cervantes said.
However, critics questioned law enforcement agencies’ ability to store seized guns and said the proposed law could be misused in divorce cases.
“One life saved is important, but one life destroyed is something we also need to pay attention to,” said Sen. Candace Gould, R-Albuquerque.
The hearing featured more than two hours of emotional testimony and debate, with supporters and opponents alike sharing heart-wrenching stories about family members who died by suicide or violent crimes.
It was held in the Senate chamber, and in a rare move, the roughly 200 people who showed up were screened for weapons on entering, due to past tensions surrounding gun issues at the Roundhouse.
This year’s red flag gun bill, Senate Bill 5, has divided New Mexico’s law enforcement ranks. Thirty of the state’s 33 county sheriffs oppose the measure, while State Police Chief Tim Johnson and top Albuquerque Police Department officials support it.
About 20 sheriffs showed up for Tuesday’s hearing – they were allowed to carry guns in the chamber – and argued the legislation would infringe on individuals’ constitutional rights.
San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari, who last year met with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other bill backers in an attempt to find common ground on the issue, said supporters have failed to heed suggestions from those opposing the bill.
“It seems to me they’re hellbent on being part of the red flag club,” Ferrari told the Journal.
He also said extreme risk protection orders could deprive individuals of their due process rights, saying, “Criminals would have more rights than those targeted in these civil cases.”
Under the bill, a relative, household member or law enforcement officer would be able to file a petition in state court for an order to prohibit someone from possessing firearms.
If a judge found probable cause that an individual posed a threat to themselves or others, an emergency 15-day order requiring them to relinquish their firearms would be issued. A one-year order could then be imposed after a court hearing.
Similar laws have been enacted in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Although the laws differ, many states enacted them in response to mass shootings, such as the February 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
Red flag laws have survived court challenges in some states, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
After Tuesday’s vote, Cervantes said he’s confident the proposed New Mexico law would be upheld as constitutional if challenged but also said it will be amended in the coming days based on feedback from law enforcement officials and others.
“Now we’re going to really roll up our sleeves and get to work incorporating what we heard today and in the last few weeks,” Cervantes said in an interview.
One potential change could be expanding the list of those who could file a petition for extreme risk protection orders, possibly to include roommates and co-workers.
Meanwhile, a similar measure passed the House last year before stalling in the Senate, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he believes this year’s bill would also pass – if it makes it to the House.
“If it passes in the Senate, we can get it done here,” Egolf told reporters Tuesday.
The bill now advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee, its last stop before the Senate floor.
It could be heard in that committee by as soon as next week, Cervantes said.
Elected officials in the state’s most populous county also threw their support behind a red flag law Tuesday when the Bernalillo County Commission unanimously approved a resolution calling on the state to enact one.
“What we’re doing here is saying, ‘We are concerned about this; we are concerned about mental health; we are concerned about suicide, and this is one step we hope you all will consider,’ ” said Commissioner Jim Collie, who co-sponsored the resolution with Debbie O’Malley.
Journal staff writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.