Sheriffs, gun control advocates on opposite sides of background check bill - Albuquerque Journal

Sheriffs, gun control advocates on opposite sides of background check bill

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard
Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard

SANTA FE – State Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard and suspected cop killer Davon Lymon have something in common.

Each bought a firearm in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, according to testimony in court and at the Roundhouse.

In Lymon’s case, he has been charged with using the weapon to kill Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster.

As for Garcia Richard, she says she just wanted a handgun – a Ruger LCR .357 – as she worked on getting her permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Neither transaction required a background check.

But such transactions are at the heart of a debate that’s bringing droves of people to the Roundhouse this session and thrusting New Mexico into the national debate over gun control.

At issue is a proposal by Garcia Richard – there’s a companion measure in the Senate – to require background checks for firearm sales at gun shows and in private transactions, like the kind that happen behind, say, a Wienerschnitzel or McDonald’s.

Sally Beers of Albuquerque wears a sticker in support of a bill to increase background checks for gun sales during a Senate Public Affairs Committee meeting at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Jan. 31.
Sally Beers of Albuquerque wears a sticker in support of a bill to increase background checks for gun sales during a Senate Public Affairs Committee meeting at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Jan. 31.

Giving a gun to someone or lending it for more than five days would also trigger the requirement for a background check, though there are exceptions for close family members and similar situations. The buyer and seller would have to go to a licensed firearms dealer to have the background check done for a “reasonable fee.”

Supporters say it would make it harder for criminals such as Lymon to obtain a gun and level the playing field for small businesses – because federally licensed firearms dealers already must do background checks, but people who arrange sales online don’t have to.

Opponents say the regulations wouldn’t actually deter criminals, who would just ignore them, and merely inconvenience law-abiding citizens. Sheriffs across New Mexico have turned out to oppose the legislation and say it wouldn’t have prevented Webster’s death because dangerous criminals will still find a way to get firearms.

Partisan debate

Garcia Richard, a teacher and Los Alamos Democrat, said her purchase in a McDonald’s parking lot underscores the need for extending background checks to private sales.

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Andrew Montoya of Albuquerque, center, sits in front of several sheriffs from around the state at the Capitol in Santa Fe Tuesday.

“No names were asked,” she told lawmakers in a recent committee meeting. “No IDs were shown. We simply looked at the gun, paid in cash and less than five minutes later walked away with this gun.”

The proposal has failed to pick up a Republican vote. It would have to receive at least some GOP support to become law – either through approval by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez or by passing the Legislature with an overwhelming margin.

House Republicans don’t sound likely to embrace the bill.

In an interview, Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, said the proposal is being pushed by outside political interests and wouldn’t actually keep guns out of the hands of criminals, echoing the concerns of sheriffs.

“It’s unenforceable,” he said. “I think it’s a political ploy.”

National money

The debate comes after a harsh campaign cycle – with negative mailers targeting Democrats and Republicans alike – in 2016. Democrats won back a majority in the House and expanded their lead in the Senate.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York-based group backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, contributed roughly $200,000 to state campaigns last year, according to the Secretary of State’s Office online database – mostly to back Democratic candidates, though House Republican Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque received a $5,000 donation.

Gentry has opposed Garcia Richard’s proposal, though he has supported a more narrowly tailored bill in the past that would have extended background checks to gun show sales.

About $140,000 in Everytown’s money went to Patriot Majority New Mexico, a pro-Democratic super PAC that campaigned against Gentry, among others.

Groups affiliated with the National Rifle Association, based in Fairfax, Va., contributed about $18,000 last year, and an NRA lobbyist has reported spending an extra $44,000 this year on “Internet communication” since the session started.

Amended bill?

Garcia Richard’s proposal, House Bill 50, has cleared two committees and was ready for action on the House floor last week.

But it appears to be on pause for now. Garcia Richard pulled the bill back to House Judiciary.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the proposal may be amended, with the hope of drawing bipartisan support on the shared goal of keeping guns away from dangerous criminals. Skeptics of the bill, he said, have shared some valid critiques.

In fact, Egolf said, he doesn’t expect the House to proceed “until we have a modified approach that addresses the legitimate concerns we’ve heard from people.”

Further narrowing of the bill – perhaps focusing on gun shows or certain other sales – is one possibility.

Democrats hold only a 38-32 edge in the House, so losing support from just three Democrats would be enough to kill the bill if Republicans stay united against it. On the other hand, supporters will want to pick up at least some Republican support to help make the case to the governor that it should become law.

Democrats have a larger partisan edge – a 26-16 majority – in the Senate.

The 60-day session, Egolf pointed out, is just past its midway point.

“There’s no rush,” Egolf said in an interview. “We want to get this right.”

A similar proposal is pending on the Senate side. Senate Bill 48 is sponsored by Democrats Richard Martinez of Española and Peter Wirth, the majority leader, of Santa Fe.

The bill cleared one committee and must go through another before reaching the floor.

Gov. Martinez, meanwhile, hasn’t tipped her hand on whether she’d support any form of background-check legislation. She did support a proposal to require background checks at gun shows in 2013, the same bill Gentry supported.

“The governor is a staunch advocate for public safety as well as a strong defender for law-abiding citizens to bear arms under the Second Amendment,” Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said in a written statement.

“In the past, she has supported common-sense gun laws that would ensure that firearms would not fall into the hands of the mentally ill. Lawmakers are still working on the bill, and we are hopeful they can make adjustments that balance freedoms and safety in a common-sense way,” the statement said.

Garcia Richard mentioned a similar goal. In talking with voters and fellow lawmakers, she said, “it is clear that we still have some more work to do to ensure we aren’t treading on individual rights.”

As for Lymon, he was convicted last year of being a felon in possession of the .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol used to kill officer Webster. He’s expected to face trial on a murder charge in 2018.

Journal staff writer Katy Barnitz contributed to this report.

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