By Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
Coverage of the 2023 New Mexico Legislative Session in this publication is made available through a partnership with the Santa Fe New Mexican and this paper.
One of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s key public safety initiatives may be in trouble, and she hinted the battle over such legislation may force a special session.
In her State of the State address, the governor called for legislative and public support to ban automatic weapons, saying they are tools of war that are flooding the streets and endangering both the public and police officers. But the tabling of one of two legislative initiatives to ban automatic weapons earlier this week puts the other’s fate into question — a point the governor acknowledged Tuesday during an interview at the Capitol.
“I wish I could say with a great deal of confidence that that one is going to move through,” Lujan Grisham said of House Bill 101 in an address to a crowd of mostly young people. “I think that one has the most difficulty (getting through).”
She suggested she would call a special session if need be to get some of the public safety measures moving forward.
“We may have to stay longer or do it again,” she said, adding just as lawmakers are likely to create an omnibus tax or education package, she could see a large-scale public safety package coming together.
“This is where we start to cobble packages together so we can get them over the floor,” she said.
Gun safety advocates flooded the Capitol on Tuesday to hear an array of speakers talk about the need for more ways to prevent guns from proliferating in the state.
As many as 200 people, including groups of schoolchildren, gathered in the Rotunda on Tuesday as Lujan Grisham and others spoke of the impact of gun violence on New Mexicans.
“There is a courageous battle to get America and New Mexico on the right side of gun safety policies,” she told the group.
Referring to concerns gun safety measures would lead to violations of constitutional rights, she said, “How many of you have a constitutional right to be safe at school? I think we have that right, too.”
Among other gun safety measures making their way through the session is a bill to impose penalties on adults if children access their firearms and use them to shoot or hurt someone. The House of Representatives has already passed the bill and sent it to the Senate.
Another bill imposing a 14-day waiting period before the completion of a firearm sale is scheduled to be heard on the House floor, perhaps by the end of the week.
But the real test of legislative and, perhaps, public taste for an assault weapons ban is yet to come.
Senate Bill 171, which would have prohibited the manufacture, transfer or purchase of all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, including handguns, was derailed Monday by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers from both major political parties voted to table it after debating whether any such ban would violate Second Amendment rights.
“I don’t think the bill would remotely stand a constitutional ruling,” Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, a lawyer, said during the discussion.
Efforts to reach Cervantes for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful. But during the day he tweeted, “There’s absolutely no point to passing new laws which federal courts will strike down and which are clearly going to be deemed unconstitutional. We have too much that needs to be done rather than the Kabuki.”
The bill, sponsored by Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, raised questions among committee members about whether it is constitutional to ban such weapons in the wake of last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to expand the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.
Illinois became the latest state to pass such a law; it is being challenged in court and could eventually make its way to a U.S. Supreme Court that has tilted more conservative and gun-friendly over the past decade.
A similar effort to ban automatic weapons in Maryland also has been met with court challenges.
Meanwhile, HB 101 — which is not as broad in scope as SB 171 and seeks to prohibit .50-caliber assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — is awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.
Despite the governor’s expression of doubt, at least two of HB 101’s sponsors believe it still has a chance.
Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero, D-Albuquerque, said Tuesday she is going to “forge forward” with getting the bill passed, despite the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on SB 171.
“We have to do what is best to keep our schools and our communities safe,” she said. “And there’s no reason for assault weapons or large-capacity weapons to be on the street. And when they are on the street, the evidence shows that they are used to do harm, to kill.”
Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, said HB 101, which she cosponsored, takes a “reasonable” approach to ensuring automatic weapons only are in the hands of law-abiding New Mexicans.
Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview the House bill is very different because it only refers to “assault-style weapons” and not “every semi-automatic handgun, rifle, shotguns — the majority of guns people own,” as Soules’ bill did.
She said the failure of Soules’ bill to advance is not an indicator of the House bill’s fate.
Still, gun rights advocates and their influential lobbying allies are likely to oppose the legislation in the House, as are Republican and conservative Democratic lawmakers.
Time also is a challenge. There are about two and a half weeks remaining in this year’s 60-day legislative session.
“I always get a little bit nervous this far into the session,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview.
Asked if the children she addressed during Tuesday’s rally to bring attention to gun violence understand the stakes when it comes to public safety initiatives, including calls to ban assault weapons, Lujan Grisham replied: “They do. They know the risks; they’ve lost friends.”
She said it pains her to know her own 7-year-old granddaughter is learning about school lockdowns and active shooter drills.
“They know,” she said. “They are literally trained early, even in preschool, what to do about an active shooter. And it plays across every news station every single day. They know. They want us to do the right thing.”