Federal agents recover a Ruger handgun during an arrest in Albuquerque, cc US Marshal Service, Nov 18, 2020


By Robert Nott/ Santa Fe New Mexican

After a lengthy debate, the state House of Representatives voted Thursday afternoon to pass a bill designed to ensure adults keep their guns out of the hands of their children. 

The 37-32 vote did not fall entirely along party lines — seven Democrats, mostly representing rural districts, joined the 25 Republicans in the chamber to vote against House Bill 9, one of several gun control measures making their way through the Legislature as lawmakers from both major political parties look for ways to fight crime and reduce gun violence.

However, as Thursday’s debate showed, there are serious and sometimes contentious differences of opinion on how best to address these issues.

House Bill 9 would create two crimes: negligently making a firearm accessible to a minor, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail; and negligently making a firearm accessible to a minor resulting in great bodily harm or death, a fourth-degree felony carrying an 18-month prison term.

Rep. Pamelya Herndon, D-Albuquerque, said the measure was inspired by the August 2021 shooting death of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove at an Albuquerque middle school. Authorities said the boy accused of shooting Hargrove brought his father’s gun to school to commit the crime.

Herndon, one of five sponsors of the bill — all Democrats — told members of the House HB 9 is designed to “save our children’s lives.”

The floor debate was the first in either legislative chamber this year to tackle gun control.

But several other gun control initiatives introduced by Democrats in both the House and the Senate have made their way through committee hearings in which pro-gun rights and pro-gun safety advocates have clashed — so far civilly — over the issue.

Thursday’s debate on the House floor was also civil, through the difference in how members of the two major parties see the issue remain wide.

Democrats supporting HB 9 said it will help keep firearms out of the hands of youth who might recklessly shoot them or use them to harm another. Republicans said the bill might violate constitutional rights under the Second Amendment. They also said the bill is vague when it comes to scenarios where responsible gun owners have to lock up firearms they may need for home protection. 

“A lot of people have guns for personal protection,” said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque. “They’re not in a gun safe; they’re there for personal protection.”

Several lawmakers who represent rural districts said youth there are taught to honor and respect firearms and use them to, as Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said, “get the job done” when it comes to predators. Republicans also raised other questions, including whether guns would have to be locked up in safes in homes with children under the provision of the law.

Herndon said the bill does not require firearms be locked up. She also said repeatedly the bill would not violate any constitutional rights.

“The firearm has to be kept in a manner in which a child cannot access it,” she said. 

Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, repeatedly asked Herndon if he would be charged with a felony just for leaving a gun on the nightstand of his home if he does not have children. 

Only if a child accessed the gun and brandished or caused harm with it, Herndon replied. Otherwise, she said “it would not cause prosecution or liability or other damages” under the legislation. Citing the 2021 shooting of a 2-year-old boy by his 4-year-old brother in Rio Rancho, Herndon said HB 9 should serve as a “deterrent so people know to lock your guns up so your children can live safely.” 

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballaro, D-Albuquerque, said passing the legislation “might prevent even more more loss of a child’s life or anyone’s life due to having unlocked access to a firearm.”

“This is beyond common sense,” she added. “This is about responsibility.”

A similar bill sponsored by Herndon in 2022 stalled in the House committee process. 

A recent Rand Corporation report cited in HB 9’s fiscal impact report says “available evidence supports the conclusion that child-access prevention laws, or safe storage laws, reduce self-inflicted fatal or nonfatal firearm injuries — including unintentional and intentional self-injuries — among youth.” The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence website says 24 states have some kind of safe gun storage or child access prevention law in place to make it difficult for kids to access guns in homes. 

Herndon held a news conference at the state Capitol before Thursday’s floor session in which Hargove’s grandmother, Vanessa Sawyer, recalled the day he died.

“I took my baby to school that morning, and he didn’t come home,” Sawyer said. 

She said Bennie’s two younger sisters, who are now 13, are afraid to go to school. “Everything is different for them now because of guns,” she said.

“Lock the guns up,” she said. “That’s all we want.”