Gun storage law in the works after ABQ middle school shooting

Similar efforts failed twice in recent years

By: - August 31, 2021 6:15 am
Flowers, candles and balloons line a brick wall in memoriam of a middle school student killed by a fellow student. A person leans down to place more flowers.

Tereshia Brown pays her respects on Thursday, Aug. 19., 2021. Students, faith leaders and community members gathered to remember Bennie Hargrove, and left balloons and flowers near Washington Middle School in Downtown Albuquerque. (Photo by Lissa Knudsen / Source NM)

Editor’s Note: We are not naming the suspect in the shooting because it is our policy to not name juvenile offenders who are not being tried as adults.

A coalition of Albuquerque-area state lawmakers is drafting a bill to create the Bennie Hargrove Gun Safety Act during the coming 30-day legislative session or a special session. Rep. Pamleya Herndon announced the legislation at a news conference on Aug. 28. 

The namesake for the bill died earlier this month at Washington Middle School. Bennie Hargrove, age 13, was shot and killed by another 13-year-old student as classmates watched at their downtown Albuquerque middle school. City police say during the lunch break on Aug. 13, Bennie approached another boy to de-escalate a potentially violent situation. The boy shot him six times. According to the suspect’s grandmother, he brought his father’s gun to school in a backpack.

The bill’s sponsors say their proposed law is needed to ensure gun owners know unequivocally that they are expected to keep their firearms locked up. Under the measure lawmakers are proposing, if a minor gets ahold of a firearm, the gun owner who failed to secure it could be charged with a fourth-degree felony. Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Reps. Herndon, Joy Garratt and Debra Sariñana are waiting to hear back from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about whether she will consider placing the legislation on the call for the 2022 session.  Similar measures failed in committee twice in recent years.

Under state law, next year’s session is supposed to be a short one — 30 days — and devoted to the budget unless the governor specifies otherwise. Allowing the introduction of firearms legislation could bring heavy partisan gun debate to a single-month budget process.

Herndon, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said the responsibility for Hargrove’s death falls squarely on the shoulders of the person who owns the gun that was used in the shooting. “If the gun had been locked up and in a place where a 13-year-old could not access it, we would not have the situation that exists today — with a child having lost their life.”

Alex Le, a seventh grader at the public charter Albuquerque School of Excellence, said he was scared after an announcement at his school alerted him to the Washington Middle School shooting.

Le said the suspect’s dad should have locked up his gun, and he thinks that parents should receive a “hefty fine of at least $1,000 — just if they find a kid with a gun.”

Le also said that he had some empathy for the suspect because of his age. He said while the 13-year-old awaits his trial, “he should be able to go home,” Le said, “so he can discuss it with his parents and stuff.”

The suspect’s lawyer argued in court that the teen has mental health issues and should be released from juvenile detention to his parents to await trial. The judge ruled otherwise, though, and he remains in custody. 

In 2019, former Rep. Linda Trujillo, a Democrat from Santa Fe, introduced legislation that would have created criminal penalties and financial liability for adults who did not properly store their firearms unloaded and locked. And earlier this year, Albuquerque Democrat Sedillo Lopez introduced a similar bill creating a possible $1,000 fine for adults whose guns were not secured. Both measures failed in committee.

Newly appointed to the Legislature to fill U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury’s former seat, Herndon’s been in communication with Bennie’s family and working alongside the other legislative co-sponsors. “This law would be for those who leave the house and their gun is left behind,” she said. “Then it must be safely secured.” If the gun owner is in the vicinity of the firearm, then this law would not apply, Herndon specified. 

Tara Mica, the National Rifle Association lobbyist for New Mexico, said in general that the NRA opposes state government mandates. 

“It’s bizarre to hear the politicians who helped create the chaos suggest that decent honest people who are only trying to defend themselves and their loved ones should make their firearms inaccessible and useless — especially when current law already allows for irresponsible parents to be held criminally and civilly liable should any tragedy occur,” Mica said.

Safe storage best practices include locking guns in a secure place such as a gun safe or cabinet or using safety devices such as trigger or cable locks, according to the National Rifle Association Family website

The August killing is the first fatal shooting in the Albuquerque district since a drive-by in 1976, according to spokespeople, but gun violence is not new in New Mexico public schools. In early 2019, a student at V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, shot at three students but didn’t hit anyone before firing into the air and fleeing the scene. 

His parents, Dale and Tamara Owen, were both later indicted on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor — a fourth-degree felony — for failing to secure their gun despite being aware of their son having heard voices telling him to go “shoot up the school,” according to the Albuquerque Journal. Dale Owen died in December, and Tamara Owen is scheduled to go to trial on Nov. 2. Her case has received additional attention because though her charges are still pending, her son’s charges were dropped after he was found incompetent to stand trial and no juvenile psychiatric treatment center would take him in. 

As for the shooting earlier this month at Washington Middle School, the suspect is set to be tried as a juvenile so far. Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torres is investigating, he said, and may pursue charges against his parents

Washington students continue to grieve their lost classmate, holding a vigil days after the shooting. There, Samia Assed, the board chair of the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) and parent of nine children, said that whatever solutions are proposed, they need to be based on community input.

“Solutions that are grounded in local and Indigenous voices have to be centered in anything we address when it comes to youth,” she said. “I don’t believe and would not condone more policing in the schools. I don’t want to further criminalize people of color communities. If anything, we would want to find more resilient ways of dealing with our youth.”

Still, Assed added that she would support a bill like this one.“There has to be common sense solutions to gun lockup.”

IN CONTEXT: Around the U.S.

  • The number of young people killed by guns eclipsed motor vehicle-related deaths for the first time ever in 2019. — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • 80% of guns used in school shootings ​​were taken from a child’s home or from those of relatives or friends, and less than 4% of adults have been convicted since 1999 of failing to lock up their weapons. —Washington Post (2018)
  • More than half of all gun owners report not storing their guns safely. — Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School Public Health (2018)
  • An estimated 393 million guns are owned by civilians in the United States. That’s 40% of all guns globally, although the country accounts for just 4% of the world’s population.  —  Small Arms Survey
  • Unlike California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, New Mexico does not require firearm owners to either lock their weapons or have a locking device in place if the firearm owner resides with someone ineligible to possess firearms. — Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

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Lissa Knudsen
Lissa Knudsen

Lissa Knudsen was the news editor at the New Mexico Daily Lobo, following a stint as the publication’s public health beat reporter. She also worked as a data analyst for local NPR affiliate KUNM News. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy with an emphasis on racial and gender equity. Knudsen holds a bachelor's degree in health science and a master's degree in program planning and health education. She’s a critical cultural communication doctoral candidate, emphasizing reproductive justice, maternity and health. She is a board member of the New Mexico Public Health Association. Before she realized she was supposed to be a journalist, Knudsen was involved in local politics up until mid-2014, getting into hot water with her bosses as she pushed for transparency and public accountability.