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Gun control bill advances past protests in New Mexico

February 27, 2019
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Democratic state Sen. Richard Martinez, right, of Espanola, stands for questions about a bill he sponsors that would expand background checks to nearly all private gun sales in New Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, in Santa Fe, N.M. The bill passed to clear its last major hurdle. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pushed back Tuesday against “rogue” county sheriffs who object to a state legislative proposal to expand background checks on firearms sales.

The state House and Senate have approved nearly identical bills to expand background checks to almost all private gun sales in New Mexico, and the House on Tuesday pushed forward with final approval of a Senate version that exempts gun sales to relatives including aunts, uncles and cousins.

The background-check bill is part of a slate of Democrat-sponsored proposals designed to stem gun violence that have drawn criticism from all but a few of the state’s sheriffs, while at least 18 counties have adopted “sanctuary” resolutions that say sheriffs should not be required to enforce any measures they consider unconstitutional.

“A few law enforcement officers in this state have been making noise about how they won’t enforce gun safety measures because they don’t like them,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a series of Twitter posts. “That’s not how laws work, of course, and it’s not how oaths of office work either. But let’s move past that.”

Additional bills are advancing through the Democrat-led Legislature that would allow judges to authorize removing guns from people who may be suicidal or bent on violence, expand child neglect laws to encompass the secure storage of household firearms and ban gun possession for people under permanent protective orders for domestic violence.

Outside Tuesday’s legislative hearing, Lincoln County Sheriff Robert Shepperd said background checks would only be feasible with the creation of a statewide gun registry, and insisted that would clearly violate Second Amendment protections.

Republican Rep. Candy Ezzell of Roswell called into question the constitutionality of a Democrat-sponsored bill while brandishing printed copies of the U.S. and state constitutions and briefly storming out of the committee room before voting against the bill. GOP Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras said the bill as written may not be enforceable.

In a burst of Twitter posts at the close of the hearing, Lujan Grisham said she would sign what she called “commonsense improvements to background checks.” The first-term Democrat campaigned successfully last year on promises to reform gun regulations.

The governor said the “overwhelming majority” of New Mexico residents support the advancing background-checks bill, and accused opponents of resorting to “hyperbole, falsehood and fear-mongering.”

Senate bill sponsor Richard Martinez of Espanola, a former magistrate judge from rural Rio Arriba County, insisted that his background check proposal won’t infringe on gun possession rights and is designed to save lives. He said seeking out a background check when selling a gun is the reasonable and responsible thing to do.

“This bill is about saving lives, it’s not about taking gun rights,” he said. “There are a lot of people with mental illnesses, with domestic violence records that shouldn’t have guns. That’s all we are trying to accomplish here.”

He urged more than a dozen sheriffs in the room to review their oaths to uphold state law, and said he was requesting an opinion from the state attorney general in response to questions about the constitutionality of the bill.

Earlier in the day, the Sierra County Commission adopted a gun rights “sanctuary” resolution. Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton said that brings the tally of so-called sanctuary counties to at least 18 out 33 statewide.

The resolutions hold echoes of activism in Washington state, where a dozen sheriffs are refusing to enforce new restrictions on semi-automatic rifles until the courts decide whether they are constitutional.

New Mexico Legislators also are considering bills that would remove guns from the hands of people who may be suicidal or bent on violence, hold parents responsible for securing household firearms and further restrict gun possession for people subject to domestic abuse orders.

The clash over gun safety legislation has highlighted a divide on attitudes toward regulation between rural and urban communities, as largely rural communities adopt sanctuary resolutions.

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