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Editorial: Modest restrictions could curb gun violence in NM

New Mexico’s colorful Wild West history includes epic battles and gunfights. For example, the shooting of Billy the Kid by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner in 1881 and the 33-hour standoff in 1884 in which Deputy Sheriff Elfego Baca bested several dozen cowboys in what is now Reserve.

Today, in many parts of this rural state, strapping on a sidearm or having a gun rack in your pickup is commonplace. New Mexico is a concealed carry state, where about 61,000 people have the licenses, including Gov. Susana Martinez.

When gun control comes up in the Legislature, some residents bring their long rifles and sidearms to hearings inside the Roundhouse. Nothing like a visual aid to make a point. New Mexico is just one of three states that allows people to openly carry weapons into legislative sessions.

Gun ownership has been and still is a way of life in New Mexico. But a Journal story by investigative reporter Colleen Heild last Monday laid out a startling picture of what that can mean.

Almost 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. Nationally, it’s just 29 percent.

Bloomberg News reported that in 2013, the state ranked fourth per capita for ownership of firearms that require a federal registration, such as machine guns, short-barreled shotguns and short-barreled rifles.

New Mexico is also one of the most dangerous states for gun violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2014 the state had the eighth highest rate of firearms deaths in the United States – suicide, homicide and accidental. A 2013 published study by a Boston University researcher found that gun ownership is a significant predictor of firearm homicide rates.

Over the past five years, the number of visits to New Mexico emergency rooms for firearm injuries increased 65 percent, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

Given the almost daily reports of gun-related violence in Albuquerque, the state’s largest municipality, one would think some modest steps to keep guns away from people who should not have them would be in order.

Think again.

Legislation to require background checks at private gun shows hasn’t hit the target. A bill to bar misdemeanor domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms died last session without a hearing. So did a bill to limit access to firearms by minors by penalizing gun owners who store weapons where a youngster is likely to get them.

Lawmakers did shoot down bills that would have permitted concealed handguns in state parks and would have allowed school employees to carry concealed guns.

Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, is again taking aim at requiring all gun show vendors to conduct background checks on customers who have not obtained concealed carry permits. In 2013, a similar bill that had the support of the governor made it through the House, but died on the Senate floor. Lawmakers should pass it this year.

While they are at it, they should also pass a law that requires the reporting of people who have been adjudicated as mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Federal law prohibits mentally ill people from possessing firearms, but doesn’t require reporting them to the NICS database – which is used for background checks. The state’s Administrative Office of the Courts has been doing it voluntarily since 2011.

These are reasonable measures that don’t create any kind of gun ownership registry or impact the right of law-abiding citizens to have firearms. But they are rational and in the long run would make us safer.

Lastly, lawmakers should bite the bullet and outlaw the open carry of firearms in the Roundhouse, other than by on-duty law enforcement officers. No matter what the intended message, the one that comes across is pure intimidation.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.