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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico moved closer to adopting a red flag firearms law Tuesday even as Republican and Democratic legislators clashed over whether the proposal is getting enough legal scrutiny.
The legislation, Senate Bill 5, would allow for the court-ordered seizure of firearms from individuals deemed an imminent danger to themselves or others.
It cleared a House committee Tuesday and is scheduled to reach the full House for consideration later this week.
But the bill’s procedural track triggered competing allegations of whether lawmakers are moving too fast – or employing stall tactics – as the bill moves through the House.
Republicans slammed House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, for assigning the proposal – one of the most intensely debated of the session – to just one committee rather than two.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, accused the speaker of trying to force the bill through while avoiding a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, a panel filled with lawyers who serve in the Legislature and often scrutinize proposals line by line.
“I haven’t complained once to him through the process,” Townsend said Tuesday, “until he pushed the gun bill to a politically charged committee and tried to force it through.”
Egolf, in turn, told reporters Tuesday that it wasn’t necessary to send the proposal to the Judiciary Committee, which considered and passed a similar proposal last year. It’s common, he said, for bills to be assigned to only one committee if they’ve already passed and been vetted by the other legislative chamber.
In this case, Egolf sent the firearms bill to the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee – a panel he said is well-equipped to evaluate the legislation. The panel spent about 3½ hours going over the bill Tuesday before voting along party lines to send it to the full House for consideration.
Egolf suggested the Republican complaints were disingenuous – that what they’re really trying to do is run out the clock, hoping to delay the bill because they don’t have the votes to block it.
“We’re going to get this bill to the floor quickly,” Egolf said, “so that we can start to save lives.”
The tussle over Senate Bill 5 illustrates the rising tension inside the House as lawmakers head into the final nine days of the 2020 session.
Egolf has accused Republicans of dragging out debate on bills even when the legislation has broad bipartisan support, simply to take up time. He warned lawmakers this week to prepare for long nights until the session ends Feb. 20.
Republicans, in turn, say there are legitimate reasons to send the firearms bill to House Judiciary, based on legal questions about whether it interferes with the Second Amendment or other constitutional rights.
In any case, it’s typical for the minority party – regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge – to want to move at a slower pace and to make sure their voice is heard.
In last year’s 60-day session, for example, evening floor sessions in the House often stretched to midnight as Republicans argued their case against Democratic bills. Committee hearings, meanwhile, typically start between 8 and 9 a.m. each day.
The situation was reversed when Republicans held a majority in the House in 2015 and 2016.
The days always get long as the session nears its end.
“At this point,” Republican Rep. Greg Nibert of Roswell said, “it becomes an endurance race, and it just depends on which side starts lacking some endurance. If I were a betting man, I think they run out of endurance before we do.”
Under the legislation, a law enforcement officer would seek court approval for an extreme risk order if there were credible information – provided by, say, a household member, school principal or co-worker – giving them probable cause to believe someone “poses a significant danger of causing imminent personal injury to self or others.”
A court could order the temporary seizure of the person’s firearms for up to 10 days, until a hearing could be held. After a hearing, the ban on having firearms could be extended one year.
The proposal also says law enforcement officers wouldn’t be immune to liability if they failed to carry out their duties under the extreme risk protection act or other state laws – a response, supporters said, to sheriffs who threatened to refuse to enforce the law.
Senate Bill 5 is jointly sponsored by three Democratic legislators – Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces and Reps. Daymon Ely of Corrales and Joy Garratt of Albuquerque.
“We have spent hours going over this bill,” Ely said Tuesday after opponents questioned whether it was being rushed.
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, held up a copy of the state Constitution later to explain why she opposes the bill.
“Those are the people’s rights right there,” she said.
Supporters describe the legislation as a way to temporarily take guns from people who are dangerous. Opponents say the law wouldn’t prevent people from losing their guns based on false allegations.
The proposal cleared the Senate 22-20 last week. Before that, it had passed the Senate Public Affairs and Judiciary committees.
The bill now heads to the House floor – the final approval necessary to send the bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has made its passage a priority.