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Background checks for gun sales hit record

Exterior of Ron Peterson Firearms store near Nob Hill, which, like other gun stores, is closed to the public. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Similar to many other states, New Mexico had a record-setting month in March for firearm background checks amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The FBI performed 24,571 background checks in the state last month through its National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which does not account for how many guns each person buys.

The number exceeds that of any month in New Mexico since the FBI began tracking firearm background checks in 1998.

When compared with the number of background checks during the same time last year, the number had risen by 45%.

Gun stores around the state reported that sales skyrocketed after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency on March 11, with many running low on different types of firearms and ammunition.

Two weeks later, most gun shops closed after Lujan Grisham issued a stay-at-home order that shuttered all businesses except those considered “essential business.” But some essential businesses such as feed stores also sell guns, making them available for buyers.

Gun control activists say there is a danger that follows the sudden increase in the number of people owning guns.

“A lot of these people are first-time buyers, meaning they have no training and they’re probably not locking up those guns, and kids are home,” said Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence.

Viscoli said the lack of training and firearm knowledge puts more families in danger as tensions from the coronavirus outbreak increase.

She also said organizations such as the National Rifle Association have played upon people’s fears to increase firearm sales, referring to an online video released by the NRA.

In the video, a disabled woman holding a large firearm discusses how society breaks down during crises, while showing videos of people looting stores.

“If you aren’t preparing to defend your property when everything goes wrong, you’re really just stockpiling for somebody else,” the woman in the NRA video says.

New Mexico Shooting Sports Association President Zachary Fort said he does not think the NRA is fearmongering. His organization, though, has recently put out information on social media to new gun owners on how to safely handle their weapons.

“What we’re trying to do is get good information in people’s hands,” he said.

Fort said that gun stores typically educate new gun owners when they buy their weapons but that the sudden increase has made it hard for thorough education to take place.

“That is a concern that some gun stores have relayed on to me,” he said. “They don’t have as much time to devote to new gun owners.”

Meanwhile, some essential businesses can still sell firearms and ammunition, as long as it is not their main service.

Big R Stores, for example, sells animal feed and is therefore considered essential. The company, with stores in Las Vegas, Santa Fe and Santa Ana Pueblo, also sells firearms and ammunition, which it can still sell while its stores remain open.

A representative from the company’s Santa Fe location said Friday it is still selling firearms, although it has only handguns and has run out of ammunition.

In 2019, the state Legislature passed a bill signed into law by Lujan Grisham requiring background checks before most gun sales and prohibiting the possession of firearms by domestic abusers.

The bill, which went into effect July 1, requires a background check before nearly any gun sale. There are exceptions for sales between two close family members and between law enforcement officers.

Opponents blasted the law, saying criminals would ignore it and that the background checks would be a burden on law-abiding gun owners. Gun rights proponents now are criticizing the governor’s shutdown of most gun shops, saying it prevents citizens from purchasing guns and is a violation of their Second Amendment rights.

But Viscoli said she hopes fewer gun stores leads to a decrease in gun sales in the coming months.

“The last thing our emergency rooms need is dealing with gunshot victims when they’re trying to scramble with the surge we’re expecting from the coronavirus,” she said.

In 2017, the firearm death rate in New Mexico was 53% higher than the national average, according to the Department of Health. Two-thirds of those deaths were self-inflicted.