SANTA FE, N.M. — A legislative proposal in New Mexico to require background checks on nearly all private firearms sales won its first committee endorsement Tuesday while igniting an impassioned public debate, involving representatives for the National Rifle Association and a rival national gun-safety organization.
The Democrat-sponsored initiative would ensure background checks against a federal database for sales at gun shows and for most other private firearms transactions, with exceptions for transfers between relatives or for hunting, sport shooting or situations of imminent danger. Under the measure, an unlicensed gun buyer and seller would go to a federally licensed dealer to complete a background check for a fee before a sale can be completed.
Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, said he sponsored the bill in a straightforward effort to reduce violence by extending background checks to more purchases to prevent felons and the mentally ill from obtaining firearms. “I believe in the Second Amendment but with our right comes responsibility,” he said in front of a crowd that overflowed into a hallway.
Opponents of the measure, including a spokesman for the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association and Republican lawmakers, said the bill would not deter convicted criminals from obtaining stolen weapons on the black market, while placing new obligation on legitimate gun buyers.
“This does not fix the problem that felons don’t go buy guns over the counter, they steal them,” said Tony Mace of the Cibola County Sheriff’s Department and vice chairman of the statewide association.
Without opposing or endorsing the bill, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish said exceptions may need to be added to ensure gun-safety training programs do not run afoul of the law.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, acknowledged concerns that rural areas of the state may not have enough federal licensed gun dealers to be able to run background checks on all sales. But he said other arrangements can be made and dismissed concerns that the bill would infringe on the right to bear arms.
“If we can’t even check if someone is mentally ill when they buy a gun, we are absolutely stymied,” he said.
Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales joined local activists in support of the regulatory changes, arguing that background check loopholes tie “both hands behind our backs as a city that is trying to make sure that people who shouldn’t have guns, don’t have guns.”
The National Rifle Association urged its members to protest the proposal, while provisions of the bill were presented by Everytown for Gun Safety, a national advocacy group for universal background checks that has aggressively lobbied New Mexico legislators to close the so-called gun show loophole.
Amid gridlock on federal gun-control measures, Everytown spent heavily last year to influence firearms-safety ballot initiatives in Maine, Nevada and Washington as well as legislative races in New Mexico. The advocacy group is steered by media mogul and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, Everytown highlighting the toll of gun violence against police officers in New Mexico by reviewed instances where law enforcement officers were shot and killed since 1987. It found that the majority of shooters were prohibited or likely prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing firearms at the time.