Legislative leaders clash over Capitol firearms ban - Albuquerque Journal

Legislative leaders clash over Capitol firearms ban

In this December file photo, visitors to the Roundhouse pass through a metal detector on their way in to the Capitol. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Top Republicans in the state House notified legislative leaders Thursday that their staff will no longer abide by a policy banning firearms inside the Capitol.

In a letter, the three highest-ranking House Republicans cited abortion-rights protests in other parts of the country, and they said any staff member working for their caucus who has a license to carry a concealed firearm will do so “if they feel their personal safety is threatened.”

That could set up a legal clash, as House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, responded with a letter of his own making it clear that security staff will continue to enforce the firearms ban and prohibit any staff member from bringing a gun into the Capitol.

He urged House Republicans to contact State Police immediately “to convey to them any threats you have received.”

The dispute is the latest round in a long-running fight over security at the Roundhouse.

Just last year, the Legislative Council, a panel of top-ranking lawmakers, enacted a ban on firearms and deadly weapons inside the Capitol complex, with exceptions for law enforcement and the military. The policy also allows exemptions issued by the House speaker or Senate president pro tem on a case-by-case basis.

Visitors are now screened through metal detectors upon entering the building. Some state employees and tenants of the Roundhouse, however, have card-key access to other entrances.

Last year’s firearms ban was approved on a party-line vote after some Democratic legislators expressed concerns about safety and intimidation. Before the ban, it was common to see people openly carrying firearms – occasionally semi-automatic rifles – during debates on gun legislation.

House Republican legislators already have an exemption allowing them to carry firearms.

But in Thursday’s letter, House Minority Leader James Townsend of Artesia, House Minority Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington and House Republican Caucus Chair Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences said their staff may carry firearms, too.

Protection is necessary, they said, because of national threats of violence by supporters of abortion rights following the disclosure of a Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

“We would be derelict in our duty, if we didn’t allow legislators and staff to protect themselves from potential harm when such hateful rhetoric is escalating across the nation,” the GOP letter says.

Montoya added in a separate statement that it was hypocritical for Democratic lawmakers to close the Roundhouse to the public in 2021 – a move that came after a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol – but downplay the threat of abortion-rights activists.

In his own letter, Egolf said House Republican staffers must follow the Capitol rules like everyone else and can challenge the firearms restriction in court if they believe it’s illegal.

“Neither the Constitution of the United States nor the constitution and laws of the state of New Mexico grant you the authority to unilaterally declare that you may violate a rule of the Legislature because you believe it is your right to do so,” Egolf said.

The letter, he said, appears to be based on a general fear “about the dangers of being unarmed for any amount of time” but that if there are specific threats, law enforcement should be informed.

He called on GOP lawmakers to denounce what he described as “anti-American” ideas taking hold in the national Republican Party, including the concept of “replacement theory” that’s being investigated as a factor in the racist shooting rampage in Buffalo.

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