New Mexico's Democrats test receptivity to gun control

New Mexico's Democrat-led Legislature and governor are pushing to increase background checks and other regulations in a state known for its culture of gun ownership. If the measures pass, the state could become the first to enact major gun control reforms since the midterms.

Craig Fritz/AP
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives her State of the State address during the opening of the New Mexico legislative session in Santa Fe, N.M., on Jan. 15, 2019. Ms. Lujan Grisham has urged lawmakers to strengthen gun control reforms.

The Democrat-led Legislature and governor pushed Thursday to increase oversight of firearms sales and place new limits on gun possession and ownership.

During its 60-day annual legislative session, lawmakers could make New Mexico the first state to enact major gun control reforms in the wake of the midterm elections.

Since taking office earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has urged lawmakers to strengthen background checks, ban guns for people with assault convictions, and address responsibility for children's access to guns.

Ms. Lujan Grisham campaigned this past year with Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman gravely wounded in a 2011 shooting, and her husband Mark Kelly.

The reforms face an uncertain future in the state with a strong culture of gun ownership. Lujan Grisham's Republican predecessor ruled out additional background checks and vetoed a proposed ban on gun possession by people under permanent protective orders for domestic violence.

Scores of opponents to expanding background checks, some carrying guns that are allowed in the New Mexico Statehouse, lined up to comment at Thursday's hearing.

"We use firearms as a tool on our ranches on a daily basis, we share those tools with our workers, our neighbors and our friends," said David Sanchez, vice president of the New Mexico Stockman's Association. "I don't see where any of this proposed legislation addresses root-cause problems of crime."

Sheriffs from several rural counties objected to expanding background checks, while police chiefs from Las Cruces, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque endorsed the measure, which advanced Thursday over the objections of Republican lawmakers.

"Nothing in this bill will prevent me from passing on my grandfather's shotgun to my children," said Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez. "Nothing in this bill creates a national firearms registry. Nothing in this bill prevents me from protecting myself as a concealed-carry holder."

A separate bill from Democratic Reps. Daymon Ely of Corrales and Joy Garratt of Albuquerque would allow police or relatives to seek court orders to seize guns from people who have shown signs of violence.

State records show there were 394 firearm deaths in 2017. About two-thirds of those deaths were classified as suicides – slightly higher than the national average when the state's population is taken into consideration. The number of annual firearm deaths has gradually increased from 262 in 2005.

The Legislature also is grappling with concerns about guns and school safety. In December 2017, two students were shot to death at a high school in the small city of Aztec by a gunman who killed himself.

The state subsequently allocated money for infrastructure projects to improve school security, such as fencing and controlled entrances. But it has not imposed regulations concerning armed personnel inside schools.

A bill from Democratic Rep. Linda Trujillo, a former elected school board member from Santa Fe, would ensure that teachers cannot carry firearms at schools and set gun protocols for contract security employees and campus police who carry firearms.

"What this does is to clarify that individuals who have other duties in the school district will not be able to carry guns," she told a House panel on Wednesday.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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