Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For years, New Mexico has been one of just a few states that allow guns, concealed or otherwise, to be brought into its state Capitol.
But that’s set to change next month after legislative leaders voted Monday, after several hours of sometimes testy debate, to approve a policy that prohibits firearms and other deadly weapons within the Roundhouse and the adjoining Capitol complex.
The policy passed on a party-line 8-5 vote, with majority Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition, will make the Roundhouse a gun-free zone with limited exceptions – including for law enforcement officers and uniformed military members.
Senate Democratic floor leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, who proposed the change, said he has at times felt fearful and intimidated of individuals with guns in the Capitol during his 17-year legislative tenure.
“The Roundhouse needs to be a safe place for all our constituents, our staff and us to engage in vigorous political debate,” Wirth said during Monday’s lengthy meeting of the Legislative Council, a group of 16 top-ranking lawmakers.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, also spoke in support of the change, pointing out schools, courthouses and other government buildings in New Mexico already ban firearms on their premises.
He said he supports the Second Amendment to bear arms – and owns guns himself – but that “no right is absolute” when it comes to living in a free society.
“I can tell you, unequivocally, that weapons have been brought into this building to intimidate,” Egolf said.
But GOP legislators strongly opposed the proposal, arguing it would infringe on lawmakers’ ability to protect themselves.
“I don’t want to be a sitting duck,” said Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, who said she is a domestic violence survivor and would not feel safe at the Roundhouse without a private security detail if not allowed to carry a gun into the building.
“We need to have that ability for self-protection,” added Sen. Pat Woods, a Broadview Republican.
They also objected to the change being voted on by a small group of lawmakers, instead of the entire 112-member Legislature.
The vote on the Roundhouse firearms policy came after roughly four hours of debate, more than one hour of which took place behind closed doors due to sensitive security details being discussed.
Members of the Legislative Council then returned to the Senate chambers to continue their debate and hold an open vote on the proposal.
The proposal ultimately passed after being slightly modified.
However, an attempt to add an exemption for individuals – including lawmakers – with concealed carry permits was thwarted by Democrats, though Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, voted with Republican lawmakers in favor of the proposed amendment.
The issue of guns at the Roundhouse is not a new one, though previous proposals to ban or restrict firearms at the Capitol had been unsuccessful.
That includes a 2017 bill that would have prohibited open carry of firearms at the Roundhouse. It passed the Senate but was defeated on the House floor.
Since then, Democratic-backed bills to expand background check requirements for gun sales and allow firearms to be seized from individuals deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others have prompted heated debate and, in some cases, drawn protesters carrying semi-automatic rifles.
In addition, the debate over the state Capitol firearms policy comes after a 60-day legislative session that was conducted behind security fencing due to concerns about possible violent unrest in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.
The fencing was taken down shortly after the session and the Roundhouse was reopened to visitors and lobbyists this summer after being closed for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new “no firearms” policy is set to take effect Dec. 6, the same day a special session focused on the once-per-decade task of redrawing New Mexico’s political boundary lines gets underway.
That means top legislative branch officials will have just over a month to implement it.
Raúl Burciaga, the director of the Legislative Council Service, said during Monday’s meeting he has been in touch with private security firms and metal detector vendors about the possibility of obtaining outside expertise and equipment.
But he acknowledged meeting the target date set by legislators will be challenging.
Meanwhile, the policy adopted Monday does not include funding for screening or other costs, a point seized upon by Republicans.
“Although we are used to legislative assaults on New Mexicans’ rights, this is a uniquely bad, overly-broad, and rushed proposal that was written by politicians, not safety experts,” top Senate Republicans Greg Baca of Belen and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho said in a joint statement.
And House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said it was unfair that leaders of both legislative chambers – both currently Democrats – will have authority to issue case-by-case exemptions to the Roundhouse firearms policy.
But backers of the ban on firearms described the policy as long overdue, while also pointing out it could be revised in coming years if logistical issues emerge.
The debate also became a referendum of sorts on gun violence, with Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, at one point citing his experience as a medic in the Vietnam War.
“I have a fear of guns because I know what guns can do to a human body,” Alcon said.