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Expanded background checks for gun sales tabled

SANTA FE – With just five days left in the session, a key House committee rejected legislation Monday that would have required background checks for people buying firearms online or at gun shows.

Democrat Eliseo Lee Alcon of Milan joined Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee to block the bill from moving on. A motion to table the legislation won approval on a 7-6 vote.

The bill isn’t dead, but reviving it and moving the proposal through committees and the full House and Senate by noon Saturday – the end of the session – would be incredibly difficult.

Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace said the tabling motion was the right move.

“It looks like we’re targeting law-abiding citizens” through the legislation, he said after the vote.

Supporters of the bill vowed to press on, even if they must wait for a future legislative session.

“We’re disappointed,” said Michael Greene, a Santa Fe resident and volunteer who supported the legislation. “We’ve put in – many of us – hundreds and hundreds of hours working on this. But we’re undaunted.”

Monday’s proposal was less expansive than an earlier version, which also called for background checks when someone lends a gun to another person. That measure was debated intensely during the first half of the session, before Democrats put it on hold to work on changes.

Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Los Alamos Democrat and sponsor of the legislation, said the version unveiled Monday was intended as a compromise to close loopholes allowing strangers to sell guns to one another without a background check.

“I said from the beginning that I was interested in striking a balance between public safety and convenience,” Garcia Richard said Monday. “I believe this bill gets us the closest to that goal that we’ve been.”

Opponents described the bill as unenforceable and easy for criminals to ignore.

District Attorney John Sugg – who oversees local prosecutors in Otero and Lincoln counties – said there’s no database that law enforcement can check to determine who obtained a gun without a background check. And the Constitution prohibits forcing people to testify against themselves, he said.

“We don’t know how we would compel people to provide the evidence we’d need to secure a conviction,” Sugg said. “I see this more as an anti-gun bill than an anti-crime bill.”

The latest version of Garcia Richard’s proposal, House Bill 548, would have required background checks when someone bought a firearm at a gun show or through an online or print advertisement.

Federally licensed dealers already have to check a buyer’s criminal background before a sale. But there’s no such requirement for unlicensed people who sell guns to one another in less formal circumstances, such as through online ads.

The House Judiciary Committee did pass another a gun bill Monday – a proposal to allow a court to order someone to give up his or her firearms in cases of domestic abuse. Senate Bill 259, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, won a recommendation of passage on a 9-4 vote.

Consideration of the bills has pushed New Mexico to the center of the national debate over gun control.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York-based group backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, says it spent more than $250,000 on New Mexico campaigns last year, when Democrats won back a narrow majority in the state House and expanded their edge in the Senate.

Groups affiliated with the National Rifle Association, based in Fairfax, Va., contributed about $18,000 last year, and an NRA lobbyist reported spending about $44,000 this session.

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