Senate votes to limit guns inside Capitol

Sen. Daniel A. Ivey-Soto

SANTA FE – The state Senate wants people to leave their rifles at home before heading to the Roundhouse.

New Mexico senators on Saturday adopted a proposal that would prohibit openly carrying firearms inside the Capitol, unless the person is a law enforcement officer.

Residents with a permit to carry a concealed weapon could also have a firearm, if they keep it concealed.

The bill passed on a 29-12 vote and now heads to the state House, where it will need quick action to have a chance at becoming law, given that only two weeks are left in the session. It would also need approval by Gov. Susana Martinez.

Passage of the bill came after about two hours of intense debate, and it didn’t fall along party lines. Democrats and Republicans ended up on both sides.

It had bipartisan sponsors: Sens. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and William Sharer, R-Farmington.

Sharer said that, as a former infantry officer, he isn’t afraid of firearms. But it’s intimidating for some people when they show up to testify in the Capitol and see others openly carrying rifles and other firearms.

“We want everyone to feel welcome here,” Sharer said.

Opponents attacked the bill from different angles – that it either went too far or didn’t go far enough.

Some Republicans said the proposal would damage Second Amendment rights and interfere with the gun-friendly culture of the West. They mocked anyone who would feel intimidated by seeing someone else with a gun on the hip.

“This bill is about people who get upset when they see a firearm because they don’t understand firearms,” Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said. “… I’m offended that they’re offended by me exercising my rights.”

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said he would propose an amendment that would prohibit people from testifying on legislation unless they go through a background check – as residents must to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He withdrew the idea, but made his point: The Legislature is too willing to pick on some constitutional rights and not others.

“These are God-given rights as free men and women, born equal,” Pirtle said. “My right to defend myself is not given to me by the government.”

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said some of his constituents are scared to come to the Capitol because of the prevalence of guns.

In debates over firearms legislation, for example, residents sometimes show up to testify while wearing a gun on their hip. In at least one rally on the Capitol grounds, protesters carried semiautomatic rifles.

The bill “is a balance between constitutional rights,” Wirth said. “It does limit the intimidation factor.”

Ivey-Soto said the bill is a reasonable way to make people feel comfortable. It doesn’t go as far as, say, the limits on weapons in courthouses or schools, where guns are prohibited and there are sometimes metal detectors.

“I think this (bill) does maintain the openness of our building,” Ivey-Soto said.

People who want to carry a gun, he said, can still do so, as long as they have a concealed carry permit and cover up the weapon.

The proposal would make it a misdemeanor to illegally carry a firearm on the Capitol premises and a fourth-degree felony to illegally fire it.

The Capitol premises is defined as the Capitol building itself, the north annex and the corridor that connects the two.

Discharging the weapon would be allowed in self defense or the defense of others.

The legislation comes as the Roundhouse is the focus of a debate over whether to require background checks for people who buy firearms at a gun show or in a private transaction.