SANTA FE — A bill that would make it a crime in New Mexico to fail to safely store firearms out of children’s reach inched closer to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk on Friday, after the Senate voted 24-16 to approve the high-profile measure.
The vote occurred one day after a teenager entered a no-contest plea in connection with the August 2021 shooting death of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove at an Albuquerque middle school campus — a case that sparked the push for a statewide gun storage law.
“We’re too familiar with this tragedy,” said Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.
But Republicans expressed concern during Friday’s two-hour debate that the proposal, House Bill 9, would be incompatible with rural New Mexico’s gun culture and could criminalize law-abiding citizens.
After raising various hypotheticals, they succeeded in amending the bill — via a narrow 20-19 vote — to exempt hunting and other recreational activities involving firearms from being covered by the bill, though other proposed amendments failed.
“Guns are in almost every single pickup in Chaves County,” Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said at one point during the debate, while recalling shooting jackrabbits as a teenager with friends.
Others evoked darker scenarios, with Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rio Rancho, telling colleagues about his armed response to two attempted home invasions.
“We live in a violent state — we live in a violent world,” Brandt said.
But backers of the legislation insisted it would be specifically targeted to cover situations when children obtain firearms that are not properly stored by adults.
“This bill does not keep anyone from keeping a firearm for self defense,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.
Vote along party lines
The measure passed the House on a 37-32 vote last month, though some rural Democrats broke from party ranks and voted against the legislation.
The Senate vote on Friday largely broke down along party lines, as Sen. Benny Shendo Jr. of Jemez Pueblo was the lone Democrat to cast a “no” vote. All Senate Republicans voted in opposition.
Despite the Senate’s vote to approve the gun storage legislation, the bill must still go back to the House for final approval before landing on the governor’s desk since it was amended on the floor and in a Senate committee.
Specifically, the measure would allow prosecutors to charge individuals for negligently allowing a minor to obtain a firearm. The seriousness of the criminal offense — either a misdemeanor or fourth-degree felony — would depend on whether the child used the gun to harm themselves or others, or if they simply brandished it.
In addition to the 2021 shooting outside Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, backers also cited other cases during Friday’s debate, including a December 2021 incident in which the 4-year-old son of a Santa Fe police officer fatally shot his 2-year-old brother with his father’s off-duty gun.
“Tragedies such as these could be prevented by responsible gun storage practices,” Stewart said during Friday’s debate.
She appeared to grow frustrated by subsequent questioning, saying, “We’re not talking about children who are out with their parents hunting — we’re talking about kids who get guns because they’re not stored properly.”
Other bills struggling
This year’s proposal is similar to a bill that stalled during last year’s 30-day legislative session due to concerns about possible unintended consequences, though supporters have worked to address some of those issues.
Meanwhile, other gun safety bills have found tougher sledding at the Roundhouse during this year’s session, including a proposed 14-day waiting period for firearm sales and a bill raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 to buy certain assault weapons, such as AR-15-style rifles.
Lujan Grisham expressed frustration this week that some of the gun measures hadn’t advanced more rapidly, describing them as “must have” legislative priorities and raising the possibility of calling a special legislative session if lawmakers do not approve them.
But she lauded the Senate’s vote on Friday, saying she looked forward to signing the firearm storage bill once the House gives its final approval.
“Holding gun owners accountable for failing to safely store their firearms is common-sense,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement, citing statistics showing three children in New Mexico die every month due to gun violence.
The 60-day session ends March 18.