New Mexico gun safety bills could spark debate at Roundhouse amid rise in firearm deaths - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico gun safety bills could spark debate at Roundhouse amid rise in firearm deaths

A gun craftsman holds a newly assembled AR-15 rifle at a Connecticut arms company in this file photo. New Mexico lawmakers are drafting several bills dealing with guns for the upcoming 60-day legislative session, including a proposal to increase the minimum age for buying AR-15-style rifles. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Over the last three years, New Mexico lawmakers have passed bills expanding background check requirements for firearm purchases and allowing guns to be seized from individuals deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.

Now, with the reelection of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, more gun safety proposals are expected to be brought forward during the 60-day session that starts next month, amid a recent spike in New Mexico firearm-related deaths and after several high-profile school shootings around the nation.

The measures likely to be considered include raising the minimum age for purchasing certain assault rifles from 18 to 21, making the failure to safely store firearms out of children’s reach a crime and creating a new office of gun violence prevention within the state Department of Health.

Rep.-elect Reena Szczepanski, D-Santa Fe, who plans to sponsor the legislation that would raise the buying age for purchasing AR-15-style rifles, said New Mexico needs to keep forging ahead on a multi-faceted approach to addressing gun violence.

“This is a huge public health crisis now for children,” Szczepanski told the Journal. “I think we can do this in a way gun owners can support and that addresses safety.”

She also described the bill as aimed at closing a loophole, as New Mexico already has a minimum age of 21 to purchase semi-automatic handguns.

However, the firearm-focused legislation is expected to face opposition from Republican lawmakers and other groups.

Most New Mexico sheriffs, for instance, staunchly opposed the 2021 “red flag” gun law bill that allows law enforcement officers, contingent on a judge’s approval, to seize guns from individuals that are found to pose an immediate safety risk.

Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said the gun safety proposals pushed by Democratic lawmakers tend to focus on a “tool” used to commit crimes, but not the issues that could be driving the increase in New Mexico violent crime rates.

Those issues include drug addiction, mental health treatment and illicit firearm trafficking, she said.

“I feel the gun bills they present are consistently going after responsible gun owners and are not addressing crime issues,” Lord said in an interview.

The legislative debate comes as New Mexico’s firearm fatality rate is among the nation’s highest.

A total of 562 state residents died in 2021 due to firearm-related injuries – up significantly from 481 firearm-related deaths in 2020, according to state Department of Health data.

Of that amount, more than half – or 319 cases – were classified as suicides and 243 were classified as homicides.

In addition, the rate of 14.9 firearm-related deaths per every 100,000 residents in 2010 nearly doubled over the last decade – there were 23 such deaths for every 100,000 residents in 2020.

Lujan Grisham, who won a hard-fought campaign last month against Republican Mark Ronchetti, pushed lawmakers to pass gun safety legislation during her first term as governor and a spokeswoman said Friday she plans to continue that effort during the upcoming session.

“The governor will pursue a robust package of common-sense gun safety legislation in the upcoming session, the details of which will be decided in the coming weeks,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said.

“The governor is clear: New Mexicans are beyond sick and tired of crime, and gun violence continues to be a nationwide scourge that warrants immediate and outcomes-focused attention,” she added.

While some firearm-related measures have won approval in recent years, however, other bills have stalled.

For instance, a bill proposed during this year’s 30-day session to make it a crime for adults to fail to keep their firearms out of the reach of children, failed due to concerns about possible unintended consequences.

Rep. Pamelya Herndon, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill, said she plans to try again during the upcoming session – with a more robust advocacy effort and a few tweaks aimed at addressing skeptics’ concerns.

Those changes will include indemnifying adults whose guns are obtained by minors during robberies, for instance.

“We addressed those and we need specific exclusions because we know people can’t be in control of all situations,” Herndon told the Journal.

She said the legislation, which stemmed from the 2021 killing of eighth-grader Bennie Hargrove at an Albuquerque middle school, is supported by a group of Albuquerque students who have mobilized against gun violence.

While critics have argued the firearm storage bill could place responsible gun owners in jeopardy of facing criminal charges, Herndon said that’s not her intent.

“It is not the goal to just criminalize people, but we want them to be aware of their responsibilities if they intend to be gun owners,” she said.

Bills can be prefiled starting Jan. 3 for the 60-day legislative session, which gets underway Jan. 17. Unlike during the shorter 30-day sessions held during even-numbered years, bills dealing with any type of subject issue can be proposed without approval from the governor during the longer 60-day sessions.

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