Legislature takes up multitude of gun bills sure to face a tough road

A slew of gun bills have been introduced this session despite past struggles with similar legislation

By: - February 14, 2023 4:14 am
Black rifles sit on a white store shelf against a bright red wall in the foreground. In the background, men inspect other firearms.

Potential buyers try out guns which are displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on Nov. 18, 2016 at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images)

New Mexico lawmakers are debating a variety of gun bills during the 60-day session in Santa Fe.

Although previous legislation centered on firearm restrictions has historically struggled to make lasting progress in the Roundhouse, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is optimistic lawmakers know they have a responsibility to change the state’s laws before another tragic mass shooting happens.

“State legislators understand the critical importance of tackling the scourge of gun violence in our state with urgency,” Maddie Hayden, the governor’s spokesperson said. “We are proud to be working across party lines on several of these proposals.”

One such bipartisan bill is House Bill 306, sponsored by Minority Floor Leader Ryan Lane, a Republican from San Juan County. The bill seeks to prevent straw purchases, a type of firearm purchase where someone buys a firearm for another person who is legally banned from owning firearms, such as a convicted felon.

That bill is currently waiting to be debated in its first committee on Thursday.

Other bills making their way through the Roundhouse include House Bill 9, sponsored by Rep. Pamelya Herndon (D-Albuquerque), which seeks to require gun owners to store firearms in a manner so that they cannot be accessed by a child, and in the event a child accesses a gun and harms someone, the gun owner could be criminally charged.

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Similar proposals stalled. This version, which would make it a misdemeanor to negligently allow a child access to a firearm, and would make it a felony if that negligence resulted in someone dying or suffering great bodily harm. passed the House on a 37-32 vote after a three hour debate last Thursday.

Restrictions and bans

In her State of the State address last month, Lujan Grisham tasked lawmakers with crafting legislation aimed at reducing crime and gun violence, specifically imploring legislators to strengthen the state’s gun laws and to ban firearms commonly classified as assault weapons.

The road to such a ban begins with House Bill 101, which would restrict the sale, manufacture and possession of AR-15-style rifles along with semiautomatic firearms with certain characteristics, such as semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines, or semiautomatic pistols with a fixed magazine capable of accepting more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

The bill is currently in the House Judiciary and already has concerns from the New Mexico Attorney General that it could be contested in court due to potential Second Amendment violations, according to legislative analysts.

Rep. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) co-sponsored the legislation and said that while she believes most gun owners in New Mexico act responsibly, high-capacity weapons are often purchased legally by people who seek to harm others with them.

“We have seen far too many mass shootings carried out using these weapons,” she said. “As state lawmakers, we have the power to take this important step to prevent these senseless tragedies.”

As written, the bill would make it a fourth-degree felony to purchase, possess, manufacture, import, sell or transfer assault weapons in the state. The legislation does include limited exceptions to the ban, such as police officers and members of the armed forces.

A substitute bill introduced during a hearing last week included a clause to allow current assault weapon owners to keep those firearms, provided they register them with the New Mexico State Police.

Banning any firearm in the U.S. is always a contentious issue, and if passed, the legislation would likely be subject to legal challenges as similar legislation in other states has been.

Earlier this year, Illinois banned the sale or possession of dozens of specific brands and types of rifles and handguns, .50-caliber guns, attachments and rapid-firing devices. Additionally, rifles are limited to 10 rounds per magazine, and handguns cannot hold more than 15 rounds.

The Illinois law provides a clause similar to proposed legislation in New Mexico that allows anyone who already owns the now-banned items to keep them by registering them with the Illinois State Police.

Three lawsuits came shortly after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the legislation into law on Jan. 10. One complaint is centered on claims that the law violates the Illinois State Constitution, and two federal suits are centered on claims that the law violates the Second Amendment.

Pritzker said during a Jan. 24 news conference that he expected the courts to uphold the ban because the wording in the law is similar to legislation in eight other states with assault weapon bans. 

Aside from court battles, Pritzker has faced opposition from county sheriffs and other Illinois law enforcement officials refusing to enforce the new law.

It’s a battle New Mexico lawmakers experienced before they even passed a red flag law in 2020. 

That law now allows a law enforcement officer or a prosecutor to ask for a court order to prohibit someone from possessing firearms in cases where they could cause harm to themselves or others. If a temporary 10-day order is granted, a hearing is held to determine whether it should be made permanent for one year. 

But well before the legislation ever became law, some sheriffs in New Mexico vowed they would not utilize it, citing concerns over violating the U.S. Constitution. However, the law has not been challenged in court and remains in effect.

Up for debate and ready for legal review

Other gun-related bills during this 60-day session, including a mandatory waiting period on firearm purchases and a bill to prevent the sale of some semiautomatic handguns. 

They’ve all passed at least one committee and are waiting for their day before their respective Judiciary committees that will scrutinize the legal ramifications of these proposals, including if they are constitutional.

House Bill 100 would establish a 14-day waiting period for the purchase of any firearm and require a prospective seller who doesn’t already hold a valid federal firearms license to arrange for someone who does to conduct a federal background check prior to selling a firearm.

The bill includes exclusions for sales between law enforcement officers, and between immediate family members. The proposal, also sponsored by Romero, passed its first committee along party lines and is currently scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee.

Senate Bill 171 seeks to ban the manufacture, sale, trade, gift, transfer or acquisition of semiautomatic pistols that have two or more defined characteristics. Those include a detachable magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip; a threaded barrel capable of accepting a barrel extender, flash suppressor, forward hand grip or silencer; or a shroud that is attached to the barrel that allows the shooter to hold the firearm with the second hand without being burned.

The legislation also applies to firearms that can be modified to shoot automatically by a single pull of the trigger, and it would prohibit the sale of ammunition coated with materials designed to penetrate metal or pierce protective armor, along with ammunition designed to explode or segment on impact.

Senate Bill 116 would establish a minimum age of 21 for anyone seeking to purchase or possess an automatic firearm, semiautomatic firearm or firearm capable of accepting a large-capacity magazine. The bill would effectively raise the minimum age for buying an AR-15-style rifle from 18 to 21.

Senate Bill 44 would make it a misdemeanor to carry a firearm within 100 feet of a polling location on election day or during early voting. On-duty law enforcement officers and security personnel would be exempt. This bill is moving more than the rest, and is currently waiting for a vote on the full Senate floor.

Any change made by one chamber requires the bill to go back to the first chamber for agreement before the 60-day session ends.

Lawmakers have until noon on March 18 to finalize changes and send bills to Lujan Grisham. If signed by the governor, the bills become law.

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Ryan Lowery
Ryan Lowery

Ryan Lowery is an award-winning independent journalist based in Albuquerque. He covers politics and criminal justice and has reported on New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic, Santa Fe Reporter, Los Angeles Times and others. Lowery was awarded the 2020 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Award from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, and the 2021 Sunshine Award from the New Mexico Press Association for his reporting that highlighted lack of transparency from multiple government agencies.