By Etta Pettijohn
Several firearms bills cleared a key House committee this week and are scheduled for debate on the Floor in both chambers of the New Mexico Legislature in coming days.
Two of the most contentious ones would require background checks on private gun sales; and allow family members, ex family members, stepchildren, former spouses (whether they are residing in the same dwelling or not) and a host of others to seek ex-parte court orders to take guns temporarily from someone they believe is an immediate threat to themselves or others. Lawmakers voted along party lines, with democrats voting for and republicans against the measures.
Dozens of people testified before members of the House Judiciary Committee on Monday to testify in favor, or in opposition, including the state’s sheriffs’ association. County sheriffs showed up in force to oppose these bills, which they contend are unconstitutional, unenforceable, and in the case of one bill, could put deputies serving these ex-parte orders lives in danger.
Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton, representing his constituents, and as legislative liaison for the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, testified against some of them. He is also a board member of the New Mexico Association of Counties and has spent the week tracking and reacting to bills harmful or helpful to Sierra County. For the few days he spent in the state Capitol, he said he arranged for his Undersheriff and “extremely professional staff” to maintain office procedures.
Firearms measures include that cleared committees include:
HB 83 -- EXTREME RISK PROTECTION ORDERS
Authorizes the seizure of firearms and ammunition based on an accusation that someone poses a danger to him or herself or others. Those listed that can petition for the seizures include: “spouse, parent-in-law, grandparent, grandparent-in-law, child, stepchild, grandchild, a person who has a child in common with another person -- regardless of whether they have been married or lived together at any time -- or a person with whom the petitioner has been in a dating or intimate relationship.”
Opponents of the measure say it violates the Second, Fourth and Fifth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, allowing confiscation of property without being charged with a crime, or with representation in a court of law. The Second Amendment restricts the government from infringing on citizens’ right to keep and bear arms. The Fourth Amendment restricts the power of the police to seize and search people, their property, and their homes. The Fifth Amendment prohibits citizens from being deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
In addition, Hamilton says someone who hasn’t had any contact with the accused for 10 years could make such an accusation. Since the accused is not notified, the fact that law enforcement could show up at their door to confiscate their weapons could, “push someone in crisis over the edge,” placing the deputies serving the order in grave danger.
He said what troubles him is there is too much room for people to use these orders to falsely accuse someone, and they override the legal safeguards necessary before abridging someone’s constitutional right to bear arms.
“Supporters of this say there is a small penalty for swearing under oath such a threat exists, but that wouldn’t appease the grieving family of an officer killed over a misunderstanding or falsehood.”
HB 8 – REGISTRATION OF PRIVATE FIREARM SALES
This expands the requirements for background checks to private sales of firearms, including between two individuals. Licensed dealers already conduct background checks, and most sales at gun shows are checked through a federal gun registry. Supporters say individuals who want to buy or sell a gun would go to a retailer or other dealer to have the background check done, at a $45 cost to the buyer/seller.
Hamilton, and several other sheriffs who testified, said it would be impossible to enforce the law as written, and that it would do nothing to keep criminals from buying guns.
“This legislation provides no means of enforcement or mechanism to verify a background check is conducted,” said Hamilton.
“Feel good laws like this don’t prevent crimes,” he said. “In 1994 there was a big push to pass such laws, like the ‘Three Strikes’ laws. Twenty-five years later rarely, if ever, is this law used, because the state has another habitual offender law that provides mandatory extensions to the sentences of convicted repeat felony offenders.”
As late as 2015 the “Albuquerque Journal” was reporting no inmates were serving sentences under the three strikes law, and Hamilton said to date there are no felons serving under this sentencing extension.
“We need comprehensive, enforceable gun laws,” said Hamilton.
HB 130 – CRIMINAL/CIVIL LIABILITY
This would make gun owners criminally and civilly liable if a child gains unsupervised access to an unsecured firearm. “New Mexico already has a first-degree felony child abuse statute on the books to hold adults accountable for putting children's lives or health at risk by leaving guns where kids can obtain them, and the tools exist to charge and prosecute parents or guardians in such cases,” said Hamilton, referring to Chapter 32A, New Mexico Statutes.
HB 35 – FIREARMS LICENSEE VERIFICATION
This bill would require federal firearm licensed (FFL) dealers to pay the state $200 annually for the Department of Public Safety to run stolen gun checks on any used firearm an FFL purchases.
Hamilton said it’s unclear what happened to this legislation, but a check shows it did not advance out of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.