Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The state Capitol was once the kind of place a visitor could walk into with a semiautomatic rifle.
And new laws limiting firearms routinely faced rejection.
But metal detectors now greet visitors to the Roundhouse. And lawmakers – buoyed by support from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – are introducing a raft of measures this session targeting firearms.
The proposals range from banning the possession of AR-15-style rifles to requiring gun storage away from children.
Other measures touch on firearms at polling places, a 14-day waiting period for purchases and the legal liability of gun manufacturers.
State Rep. Andrea Romero – a Santa Fe Democrat sponsoring an assault weapons ban and waiting period for gun purchases – said she’s seen the “tide change” at the Capitol in recent years. For her, the massacre of children in Uvalde, Texas, last year was a tipping point that motivated her to propose new restrictions.
“These are really smart pieces of legislation,” Romero said in an interview Friday. “We’re not just trying to take away guns.”
But intense opposition is building. Opponents say the proposals aren’t an effective way to combat crime or protect the public.
Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said some of the proposals – such as bans on the possession of AR-15-style rifles or magazines with more than 10 rounds – would turn law-abiding gun owners into felons just for having property they legally purchased.
It’s entirely the wrong approach, she said.
“The criminals are going to have access to whatever they want,” Lord said. “I’m trying to make sure that our legal gun owners still have a way to defend themselves, their home, their property, their livestock.”
Romero, for her part, said she welcomes opposing viewpoints and is open to changes to “make these laws strong but fair.”
Guns in NM
New Mexico has high rates of gun ownership and mortality.
About 37% of adults in the state lived in a household with a firearm in 2016, about 5 percentage points higher than the national average, according to the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank.
New Mexico had about 22.7 firearm deaths per 100,000 people in 2020, ranking No. 7 in the nation for firearm mortality, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the Roundhouse, firearm legislation routinely failed until the Democratic wave of 2018, when Democrats flipped control of the executive branch and sharply expanded their majority in the state House of Representatives.
Since 2019, Lujan Grisham has signed bills to require background checks before nearly every gun purchase, establish a “red flag” law for the temporary seizure of firearms from individuals deemed dangerous to themselves or others, and prohibiting gun possession by domestic abusers.
Lujan Grisham made it clear in her State of the State address that she wants to see more.
“We all know that we cannot keep our people safe – can’t keep our police officers and their families safe – if weapons of war continue to flood our neighborhoods,” the governor told lawmakers.
She is backing four gun measures in this year’s session:
• Banning the sale of AR-15-style rifles.
• Allowing crime victims to sue gun manufacturers.
• Making it a crime to fail to properly secure a firearm that’s accessible to an unsupervised minor.
• Closing a loophole in state law to allow prosecution when a person buys a gun for a someone who isn’t legally able to make the purchase themselves, a transaction known as a straw purchase.
Advocates for gun owners, meanwhile, say the scope of this year’s proposals is unusual.
“We’re used to seeing a lot of bills,” said Zac Fort of the New Mexico Shooting Sports Association, “but I think the severity of the bills has definitely increased this year.”
The legislation, he said, isn’t an effective way to combat crime.
With Albuquerque hitting historic highs in homicide, Republican lawmakers – and some Democrats – have pushed to revise state laws on pretrial detention of defendants accused of a violent crime.
“We’re not able to hold criminals accountable right now,” Fort said. “I don’t think it’s a problem that we don’t have enough laws. I think it’s a problem of prosecution.”
Lord, the Republican legislator, said even some of the less-expansive gun proposals are problematic. A storage requirement, she said, might leave a woman without enough time to defend herself against a violent ex-husband.
“They need to be able to protect themselves,” Lord said. “Especially in rural America, it takes a while for law enforcement officers to get there.”
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat who is co-sponsoring the safe-storage bill, said it’s time to hold adults accountable for allowing children access to firearms resulting in harm.
In gun safety courses, Sedillo Lopez said, “I want them to spend a lot of time on making sure that people understand not only is it the right thing to do to secure their firearms, but it’s the law. I think that’ll change behavior.”
Some of the proposals introduced this year conflict with each other – such as measures that would ban the possession of AR-15-style rifles or simply raise the age limit for purchasing them.
Some of the ideas, in any case, were evaluated in a study released by the Rand Corp. this month.
The group’s research found “available evidence” supports the conclusion that child-access prevention laws reduce self-inflicted fatalities and firearm injuries among youth, in addition to reducing firearm homicides among youth.
The think tank found moderate evidence that waiting periods reduce firearm suicides and total homicides. It also found moderate evidence that age restrictions reduce firearm suicide.
A local advocacy group, New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, is backing all three ideas in legislation this year.
Miranda Viscoli, co-president of the group, said she’s optimistic about significant legislation making it to the governor’s desk this year.
The political environment has changed over the last decade, she said, as lawmakers have seen the impact of bills already passed.
“We’re realizing we passed some pretty good gun-violence prevention laws,” Viscoli said. “They’re working, and they’re not taking everybody’s guns away.”
But the rise in violence amid the pandemic, she said, demonstrates there’s more to be done.
“People are literally tired of the gun violence,” Viscoli said.