Federal judge backs pause on New Mexico public firearm restrictions with legal precedent
Plaintiffs fight for constitutional rights, while defense attorney says governor won’t back away from stance that gun violence is an “absolute emergency”
The federal courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
As rain turned to hail on the windows of a courtroom in Albuquerque on Wednesday, a federal judge told a tense and silent audience he decided to temporarily suspend public firearm restrictions New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham put in place last week.
This order came as a response to gun violence in New Mexico, the governor said, and followed the death of an 11-year-old leaving a minor league baseball game.
On Wednesday, parties from both sides in the courtroom agreed that gun violence is an issue, bringing up the children that have died as a result.
U.S. District Judge David Urias said he’s extremely affected by the deaths of children and gun violence is a significant problem, especially in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, where the gun restrictions in the order applied.
However, he added, the question raised in court today was more narrow than that.
He pointed to U.S. Supreme Court precedents in this case and ultimately ruled in favor of pausing the monthlong ban in Albuquerque on carrying guns in public.
There will be another hearing on the matter on Oct. 3, just five days before the remainder of public health order is currently set to expire.
This doesn’t affect other sections of the order that concern drugs and juvenile prison diversion programs.
After some initial arguments, Urias questioned the intent of the plaintiff attorneys, since they focused solely on firearm restrictions. The whole order is broader than the Second Amendment, he said.
“There are sections of this that really don’t apply,” he said.
Each attorney said they only are focused on the firearm prohibitions, although some had varying thoughts on where exactly in public the bans in the order should or shouldn’t apply to because of redundancies in state law.
It’s already illegal to carry firearms in schools or federal buildings in New Mexico.
Before getting started, Urias said the briefs submitted included commentary and told the attorneys to keep political opinions out of the discussion today.
“They’re not going to make a difference to me,” he said.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys repeatedly brought up the Supreme Court case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, which ended in a 2022 ruling determining that people can carry pistols in public, a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment.
Urias mentioned that Bruen and other Supreme Court cases attorneys brought up don’t involve public health emergencies.
“Is it a difference that makes a difference?” he asked.
Attorney Robert Aragon, representing the plaintiffs in the Fort v. Lujan Grisham lawsuit, said he’s not in Albuquerque to talk about public health emergencies. He referenced the state senators sitting in the room listening — Sens. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) and Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) — and said legislators need to talk in the next legislative session about the powers the state has during those emergencies.
Urias brought up assembly rights courts had to decide on during the pandemic, a First Amendment right that was also revoked. Attorney Anthony Napolitano, representing Gun Owners of America, said this is different because assembly enhanced the spread of COVID-19 whereas carrying guns in public isn’t causing a problem in New Mexico.
Attorney Marc Lowry, representing plaintiffs in the Blas v. Grisham lawsuit, quoted New Mexico’s Public Health Emergency Response, which is partly in place to give the state the power to manage public health emergencies in a way that protects “civil rights and the liberties of individual persons.”
He said the people’s civil rights are being violated by this public health order. Urias said the argument could be turned the other way, in which liberties include the protection of children from gun violence.
Lowry arguedt his case is about law-abiding people.
The judge said it’s an assumption that law-abiding people are not the problem, but the person who shot the 11-year-old at a baseball game — who police are still searching for — could’ve been a law-abiding person with a concealed carry permit.
“They’re only criminals until they shot and killed someone,” Urias said.
Urias said he tends to agree with the plaintiffs’ argument that the part in public health order pertaining to how many violent crimes are in an area is broad and vague.
Aragon brought up the state constitution in his argument, saying it hadn’t been discussed. Urias asked if he raised that in his complaint — which he didn’t.
Though Aragon said the court needs to look at multiple avenues of guidance, Urias said the state constitution is a point of reference for the larger case that will determine whether the order will ultimately stay in place or not.
After five different attorneys listed reason after reason that the firearm restrictions in this public health order shouldn’t be enforced, Holly Agajanian, representing numerous state officials, stood alone in front of the judge.
Urias said despite the request from the plaintiffs, that the governor’s office didn’t get a chance to respond, and he wanted to offer that opportunity, considering the issue at hand.
He said he knew Agajanian probably didn’t have time to fully consider all the briefs — at least six have been filed — but the immediate question was if a temporary suspension on the public health order is justified.
“I think you have kind of a hard road here,” Urias said.
Agajanian said the governor rejects the notion that all the gun violence isn’t an “absolute emergency.” She said the norm is people getting murdered every day, which is why there shouldn’t be a suspension on the order.
She said there are too many politicians that are afraid of the National Rifle Association, backing away from this issue and saying it’s too difficult.
Numerous lawmakers have voiced their opposition to the firearm restrictions included in this order, including state Sen. Cervantes, who sat in the courthouse on Wednesday. A few days ago, he called on the governor to rescind the order through social media.
The rain intensified as Agajanian spoke before the judge. People in the gallery laughed and scoffed quietly during different parts of her argument.
Urias posed several questions for Agajanian during her remarks, asking why a temporary suspension shouldn’t be granted.
Agajanian said the order doesn’t restrict the ownership of guns. But the order gives the state time to compile research on gunshot victims and take further actions in order to address the emergency, she said.
“We have to do something,” she said.
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