New Mexico loves its guns.
Nearly 50 percent of New Mexicans have a gun in the home, according to a 2013 survey by public health researchers from Columbia University and Boston University. The national gun ownership rate was 29 percent.
As for ownership of federally registered firearms, such as machine guns, short-barreled shotguns and short-barreled rifles, New Mexico ranked fourth per capita in the United States in 2013, according to Bloomberg News.
New Mexico is just one of three states that permits people to openly carry weapons into sessions of the state Legislature.
And it is one of the most dangerous states in the country for gun violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The state in 2014 had the eighth highest rate of firearms deaths in the United States, considering suicide, homicide and accidental deaths caused by guns. That ranking was up from ninth place a year earlier.
Over the past five years, the number of visits to New Mexico emergency rooms for firearm injuries increased 65 percent, according to New Mexico Department of Health.
NM slow to act
While Congress has been reluctant to tighten firearms laws, a number of states have opted to take the lead. Yet New Mexico lawmakers haven’t been inclined to enact new gun control legislation.
“The momentum since Sandy Hook has been unprecedented with 41 states enacting 125 new laws,” said Allison Anderman, a staff attorney at the Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, referring to the 2012 fatal shooting of 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., school.
Oregon, for instance, enacted legislation requiring private or unlicensed firearm sellers to conduct background checks.
And last year, nine states passed laws preventing domestic abusers from accessing firearms. Federal laws aimed at keeping guns away from domestic abusers have significant limitations, prompting some states to adopt broader laws to address the problems, according to the law center.
A look at recent New Mexico legislative history shows efforts to increase gun background checks and to regulate private gun show sales are regularly shot down. On the flip side, lawmakers have killed measures to permit concealed handguns in state parks and allow school employees to carry concealed guns.
Last year, a bill to bar misdemeanor domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms died without having a hearing.
The lone firearms measure to be approved and enacted in 2015 adds to the list of people who don’t have to take firearms training and refresher courses required for concealed carry permits. Active and retired members of the military and the New Mexico Mounted Patrol are now exempt.
A year ago, freshman Rep. Stephanie Maez, D-Albuquerque, introduced legislation to limit access to firearms by minors by penalizing gun owners who store their weapons in places where a youth is likely to get access.
The measure died without a hearing months before Maez’s 18-year-old son, Donovan Maez, was charged with murder in the June 2015 drive-by shooting death of a 17 -year-old Manzano High School student. She resigned her seat in November, saying she needed to focus on her family. There has been no information about where her son allegedly got the gun used in the slaying or where he was living at the time.
In January 2013, the brother of former state Sen. Eric Griego was fatally shot by his 15-year-old son, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to killing his father, mother and three siblings in their South Valley home.
“What I’m truly shocked about is the availability of guns to youth as some of these violent acts have shown,” said state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who says he has voted on “both sides of gun issues.”
High violence rates
Federal data shows New Mexico’s overall firearm injury death rate is more than 1.5 times the U.S. rate. Moreover, the state was deemed the second most dangerous in the country by USA Today, based on violent crimes committed per 100,000 people.
New Mexico Department of Health data shows that nearly 70 percent of firearms injury deaths in New Mexico from 2009 to 2013 were due to self-inflicted gunshots. About 27 percent died from intentional injury or homicide. Less than 1 percent of firearm deaths were accidental.
Meanwhile, New Mexico emergency department visits involving firearm injuries increased dramatically from 2010 to 2014.
The largest increase involved firearm injuries caused by assaults, which increased by about 53 percent, said Dr. Tierney Murphy with the state DOH. Accidental or unintentional firearm visits increased by 34 percent, and self-inflicted firearm injuries jumped 20 percent over the five-year period.
“When you look at the emergency department visits for firearm related injuries, it primarily affects males,” Murphy said, noting that 86 percent of the visits involved male patients. “The highest rate was among young males (age) 15 to 24.”
Gun control advocates and others say it is no coincidence that states with the most gun laws have the fewest gun-related deaths.
The National Rifle Association and others disagree.
“That claim is based on a so-called study that wouldn’t pass muster in a middle school science fair,” said NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen. “Gun violence is a complex problem with many contributing factors.”
“New Mexico has a long tradition with firearms,” said state Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec. “And for the most part it’s healthy.”
For instance, in 1994, the Catron County Commission in southwest New Mexico made national news by passing a resolution urging every household to own a gun. Originally, the County Commission considered mandating gun ownership.
The support for gun rights hasn’t changed over the years, said Catron County Commission Chairman Glyn Griffin.
“It isn’t a fad; it’s a principle,” said former Catron County attorney Thomas Catron, who now lives in Oklahoma.
According to a legislative analysis last year, an estimated 61,000 people have licenses to carry concealed handguns, including Gov. Martinez, who has said she started carrying a gun as a young security guard in El Paso.
“The governor is a certified concealed carry permit holder and does at times carry a concealed weapon,” Martinez spokesman Mike Lonergan said in an email.
Martinez in 2014 appeared on a You Tube video showing her requalifying for a concealed carry permit. The video, which was linked to her re-election website, touted her 100 percent proficiency.
All states have enacted concealed carry laws, but Sen. Ivey-Soto said he’s still amazed that New Mexico is one of the few that doesn’t have a prohibition against guns at the Roundhouse.
“I mean. even Texas won’t let you take a firearm into their blessed state capitol. But here, you’ll have people who will descend on the Capitol on a day the gun issue is going to be discussed. A bunch have their rifles,” Ivey-Soto said. “They’ve got their pistols where you can see them as they’re testifying on this issue.”
Even at legislative hearings involving non-firearms bills, Ivey-Soto recalls there’s been an intimidation factor at times.
“We have people who, as they’re testifying, will move their coat jacket back … and we can see their gun right there,” said Ivey-Soto.
Measures aimed at banning people from carrying firearms into the House and Senate meeting rooms were introduced last year, and died.
Sen. Neville from Aztec said he isn’t against tightening up “some of the background check issues” but generally believes New Mexico already has “tough enough laws.”
“It’s not the laws that are the problem; it’s the culture and society that we live in,” Neville said.
He recalled growing up on a cattle ranch 30 miles from his high school, Moriarty High School, east of Albuquerque..
“I had a rifle rack in the back of my pickup window, and I had my shotgun there. I’d park right next to a whole bunch of other kids that had their shotguns (in their trucks) at the school parking lot and nobody thought a thing about it. That’s just the way we all grew up.
“You wouldn’t allow that now,” he added. “If somebody showed up with a shotgun in their back window, there’d probably be some kind of SWAT team called out.”