A month ago, the 2019 legislative session in Santa Fe began on an ominous note for gun rights advocates when sheriffs were barred from taking their service weapons into the House chamber to listen to the new governor’s State of the State speech.
The Legislative Council voted to ban weapons of all kinds from the gallery of the New Mexico House of Representatives during joint sessions, leading to the awkward situation of state police disarming sheriffs.
And things have progressively gotten worse for 2nd Amendment supporters as the 60-day session hit its midpoint Friday.
Enacting gun control legislation was a big campaign promise for Democrats in the last election. And after Democrats won eight more state House seats in November’s election as well as the governor’s office, gun control measures have real political prospects for the first time in years.
Democrats control the House with a 46-24 majority, their widest majority since 1996, while also controlling the state Senate by a 26-16 majority. Gun control proponents also have an ally in the Governor’s Office for the first time in years.
The arrival in January of a Democratic governor to succeed a pro-gun rights Republican has opened the door to calls for broader background checks on private gun sales, initiatives to remove firearms from the hands of people who may be suicidal or seen as a danger to others, and to ensure teachers cannot carry firearms at schools.
The New Mexico Sheriff’s Association says the gun control laws are ill-conceived, unenforceable and punish law-abiding citizens. The lawmen have expressed opposition to the bills for weeks in legislative committee hearings, arguing they are unconstitutional.
“This is the first year of this administration, so we’ve got three more years,” said Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton. “The way the government is going, we’re going toward a firearms registry. That’s what’s coming.”
House Bill 130, which would create criminal penalties and civil liability for the negligent storage of a firearm, was passed Tuesday by the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee by a 3-2 party-line vote.
Negligence in the bill is defined as when the owner of a firearm should have reasonably known that a minor would have had access to a firearm or when an injury results from a minor obtaining a firearm.
Republicans and the Sheriff’s Association said the bill doesn’t define “reasonably,” leaving it open to interpretation if legal gun owners will face criminal charges. The bill advances to the House Judiciary Committee.
On Wednesday night, the House passed House Bill 83 by a 39-30 vote. Six House Democrats joined all 24 House Republicans in opposing the bilI, which would create a extreme risk protection order, allowing courts to temporarily order the relinquishment of firearms in domestic cases — even if lawful gun owners are not accused of a crime — while also prohibiting people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses from possessing firearms.
The Sheriff’s Association issued a letter saying HB 83 “violates due process and puts law enforcement in a more dangerous situation and does nothing to protect citizens.”
“That’s a very dangerous bill. That bill, in particular, deprives a person of due process,” Helton said. “By a court order, the guns are seized, putting my deputies in danger if we have to go seize them over a court order.”
Helton said sheriffs take an oath to defend the U.S. and state constitutions. He said some of the proposed gun control bills are unconstitutional because they deprive citizens of due process.
“It doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is mental illness and the repeat offenders,” he said. “Year after year after year, it’s the same people over and over. So let’s address these issues.”
HB 83 moves to the state Senate where House Bill 87 has gone after being passed by the House by a 37-28 vote on Feb. 8. House Bill 87 would expand the categories of people subject to protective orders who cannot receive, transport or possess a firearm.
On Thursday, the state Senate voted 22-20 in favor of a bill that would require just about anyone buying a firearm to undergo a background check.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote to senators in a message that was read aloud before Thursday’s debate, urging them to pass Senate Bill 8 as “a first step and an important step in our public safety enhancement effort.”
The legislation has been a priority for gun control advocates, but all 16 Republicans and four Democrats in the Senate said it would not prevent the sort of mass shootings that have spurred calls for gun control. The four Democrats voted against the bill — Sens. George Muñoz of Gallup, Gabriel Ramos of Silver City, John Arthur Smith of Deming and Clemente Sanchez of Grants — all represent rural districts.
Senate Bill 8 now heads to the House, which already has passed a law on background checks this year.
Sponsored by Democrat Sens. Richard Martinez, D-Española, and Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, SB 8 would prohibit the sale of a firearm without conducting a federal instant background check if the sale is made for a fee.
Proponents say the measure would merely close what they call a loophole. A gun buyer has to undergo a background check when shopping at a retail store, but there is not necessarily the same requirement for sales between two private individuals. Republicans say the legislation would merely be a burden to gun owners who want to obey the law.
Under SB 8, buyers and sellers would have to seek out and pay for a background check through a federal firearm licensee. Critics say the proposal relies on firearm buyers and sellers following through on the process, contending the law is effectively unenforceable.
Legislators narrowed the law’s scope Thursday amid concerns the bill would require background checks when family members exchange guns. Under the version approved by the Senate, gun sales between immediate family members would be exempt from background checks.
Senators also amended the bill to expressly exempt the sale of antique firearms, emergency flares, nail guns and permanently inoperable firearms.
Helton said there’s an attack against the U.S. Constitution being waged by lawmakers in Santa Fe. He was one of 27 New Mexico sheriffs who told state senators in a letter that they oppose Senate 8. Writing under the letterhead of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association, the sheriffs said Senate Bill 8 does nothing to protect citizens and is unenforceable.
“That’s an attack on the Constitution and I’m sure there’s going to be lawsuits filed over that,” Helton said, adding there’s no doubt Lujan Grisham will sign the bill. “All we’re doing is depriving a law-abiding citizen of their gun. We’re chipping away at our 2nd Amendment rights a little bit at a time.”
After the Senate narrowly approved SB 8 Thursday, Helton announced on social media that Lea County leaders were working on a resolution that would defy the Democrat-controlled Legislature. He said the Lea County commissioners are crafting a resolution declaring Lea County a 2nd Amendment Sanctuary County.
The Lea County Commission is scheduled to consider the sanctuary county resolution at a meeting at 9 a.m. Feb. 28, two weeks before sstate lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn from the first session of the 54th Legislature. It’s been a session that has dismayed out-numbered Republicans and brought them to the point of openly defying state lawmakers.
Rebecca Long, chair of the Lea County Commission, said the Chaves and Eddy County commissioners are expected to pass 2nd Amendment Sanctuary County resolutions before the Lea County commissioners meet on Feb. 28.
“Several counties in the next two weeks will be passing this 2nd Amendment Sanctuary resolution,” Long said. “Obviously, that doesn’t bind the state in any way, but it gives them notice that we don’t approve. We do not agree with this.”
Long said Helton requested the support of the county commission regarding the gun control bills.
“He would like the support of the commission, backing him up with this, and of course we’re going to back up our sheriff,” Long said.
The Quay County Commission voted unanimously Feb. 11 in favor of a resolution declaring Quay County a 2nd Amendment Sanctuary County due to objections with several gun control bills pending in the Legislature.
The 15-paragraph resolution, according to the Quay County Sun, cites three U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the U.S. Constitution affirming the individual rights to bear arms.
The resolution also states the Quay County Commission affirms its support for decisions of Sheriff Russell Shafer “to not enforce any unconstitutional firearms law against any citizen.” It also states the county “will not authorize or appropriate government funds, resources, employees, agencies, contractors, buildings, detentions centers or offices for the purposes of enforcing law that unconstitutionally infringes on the right of the people of keep and bear arms,” the Quay County Sun reported.
Three other counties, Union, Curry and Socorro, have also approved 2nd Amendment Sanctuary County resolutions in recent days as the winds of rebellion blow across New Mexico in ways perhaps not seen since secession movements more than 150 years ago.
“People around here, they’re not separatists, they’re red, white and blue,” Helton said. “They love America. They know what’s right. The law of the land is the Constitution and when local legislators feel they have the power to chip away at that, it upsets people.”
Although the county resolutions have no legal authority, their messages are clear. The 2nd Amendment Sanctuary County resolutions are being presented by sheriffs to commissioners in dozens of counties.
Asked if a revolt is unfolding, Long said the counties are simply expressing their opposition to the gun control measures.
“It feels like our freedoms are being taken away,” Long said. “I’m getting lots of calls and emails and texts from constituents and from citizens of Lea County and they are very worried. They are wanting us to send a message up to the state that we disagree. We’re doing it for our citizens and we’re also doing it to back up our sheriff, because we do disagree.”
In an email, Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said the “commonsense firearm safety measures” would not infringe on New Mexicans’ constitutional rights.
“These resolutions mark an expression of opinion, and that’s fine,” Stelnicki said. “State law will be followed.”
Helton said while Lea County’s sanctuary county resolution may be unprecedented in the county, Democrats across the nation have sewn the seeds of defiance in recent years regarding illegal immigration.
“Tell me the difference between some of these cities across the country that have deemed themselves sanctuary cities for immigration,” he said. “I think it’s kind of in the same realm as that. That’s the way I look at it.”
Jeff Tucker may be reached at . The Santa Fe New Mexican and The Associated Press contributed to this report.