SANTA FE — Bennie Hargrove’s twin sisters started middle school afraid to get out of the car.
Their older brother, then 13, was shot and killed 1 1/2 years ago by a Washington Middle School classmate, police say, who’d taken a handgun from home.
The family’s story was among those shared Thursday as New Mexico lawmakers passed a bill that would make it a crime, in some circumstances, to store a firearm in a way that allows a child to get it.
The House endorsed the legislation on a 37-32 vote, sending it to the Senate. Some Democrats crossed party lines to join Republicans against the bill.
“This bill is about keeping children safe,” Rep. Pamelya Herndon, D-Albuquerque, said, alluding to Bennie’s death. “We had two minors. One had access to a gun and one is dead.”
The measure triggered a combative three-hour debate in the House as Republican legislators contended the bill inappropriately targeted law-abiding gun owners. They also expressed frustration as Herndon wouldn’t offer a “yes” or “no” answer to some questions.
Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said the language in the bill was too vague to give gun owners an understanding of what conduct would be illegal. She added that it could endanger someone who needs quick access to a firearm for protection.
“It’s not fair to the survivors of domestic violence who fear for their life,” Lord said.
Rep. Bill Rehm, an Albuquerque Republican and retired law enforcement officer, said the bill is particularly problematic for police officers. He said he “didn’t put up my gun” after coming home from work but that his children knew never to touch it.
“For us to legislate how the rest of the responsible citizens of the city must act because of an irresponsible person is not good policy,” Rehm said.
The proposal, House Bill 9, would make it a crime to store a firearm in a way that negligently disregards the ability of a minor to access it.
Criminal charges could be brought only if the minor later brandishes or displays the firearm in a threatening way or uses it to kill or injure someone.
It includes some exceptions to intended to protect good-faith efforts to safely store a firearm.
Adult gun owners, for example, couldn’t be charged if they’d stored the firearm in a secure container or other place a reasonable person would believe is secure; the firearm was locked and inoperable; the minor broke into the home; or the gun was used in self-defense.
“This bill is not criminalizing someone who has put their due diligence into safely storing their firearms,” said Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, a Mesilla Democrat who said she has children at home and owns a firearm.
Gunshots, fleeing students
Passage came the same day Vanessa Sawyerr — Bennie’s grandmother — and a group of Albuquerque students visited the Capitol to support the bill.
Sandia High School student Karina Padilla spoke about the fear she and others felt as they ran from gunshots in 2021 and hid in a classroom. A 16-year-old student nearby was wounded in a shootout with another young person.
“As seniors at Sandia High School, we’re from a generation raised during active-shooter drills,” Padilla said. “Unfortunately, sometimes at school we fear for our lives.”
Padilla and her classmates — members of Students Demand Action — were recognized on the floor of the House before lawmakers took up the legislation. They also visited lawmakers’ offices.
The proposal is known informally as Bennie’s bill, named for Bennie Hargrove, named for Bennie Hargrove. A civil lawsuit has accused the family of the young alleged shooter of failing to properly store the firearm used in the shooting.
Sawyerr said Bennie’s two younger sisters just started middle school themselves, so scared they were reluctant to leave the car the first day.
“They’re not the same little girls I used to know,” she said.
Debate moves to Senate
The bill is jointly sponsored by five Democrats, including Herndon.
A similar proposal failed last year, blocked in a House committee before reaching the full chamber.
This year’s bill passed largely along party lines. Seven Democrats — all of whom represent districts that include rural areas — joined the chamber’s 25 Republicans against the bill.
It’s the first major firearms bill to pass a chamber of the Legislature this year.
Herndon withstood a barrage of questions from Republicans and disputed that the bill’s language is unclear.
“I think I’m being very clear to the people of New Mexico,” she said, “that it is their responsibility to keep (guns) safely stored, and out of the reach of children and any minor.”
The proposal now moves to the Senate, where final approval would send it to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who won reelection last year.
It’s one of a host of gun bills advancing in the Legislature this year — including proposals to ban the sale and possession of certain kinds of semiautomatic rifles and handguns; establishing a 14-day waiting period for firearm purchases; and raising the minimum age for some gun purchases to 21.