By Daniel J. Chacón/Santa Fe New Mexican
A bill that would hold adults responsible for keeping guns out of the hands of children passed the Senate largely along party lines Friday.
Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., D-Jemez Pueblo, joined Republicans in voting against House Bill 9, which creates two new crimes related to negligently making a firearm accessible to a minor.
The bill is one of several gun control measures lawmakers are considering in this year's 60-day legislative session and the first to pass both chambers. HB 9 says a gun owner would be liable if the firearm is kept or stored "in a manner that negligently disregards a minor's ability to access" the weapon.
"These child access prevention laws do work," said Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who is among the sponsors of HB 9.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, described it as too restrictive.
"I think the way it's written ... is you have to lock [a firearm] in a box, put it in a safe and then drop it at the bottom of the lake in order for it to be secured," he said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, started this year's session by called on lawmakers in her State of the State address to pass several new gun control measures, including "safe storage reforms." HB 9 is the first major gun control bill to pass both chambers of the Legislature this year, although the bill now has to go back to the House for concurrence because it was amended in the Senate.
A couple of other significant gun control bills that have been introduced this year, such as ones imposing a 14-day waiting period on gun purchases and an assault weapons ban, have been through committee hearings but have not gotten a full floor vote in either chamber yet.
If the House agrees to the changes, HB 9 will go to the governor's desk. In a statement Friday, Lujan Grisham said she looked forward to signing it into law.
"I commend the members of the Legislature for joining me in efforts to keep New Mexicans safe by requiring safe storage of firearms," she said. "Holding gun owners accountable for failing to safely store their firearms is common sense. We lose nearly three children in New Mexico every month as a result of gun violence — it's imperative to take every step we can to keep that from happening going forward."
HB 9 would make it a misdemeanor to negligently make a firearm accessible to a minor who uses the gun to commit a crime in which someone is threatened or sustains a minor injury and a fourth-degree felony if a minor uses the firearm to cause great bodily harm or death.
"Twenty-three states have them, including our neighbor in Texas," Stewart said. "There's evidence that they reduce the number of children killed or injured in unintentional shootings and substantially reduced child gun suicides."
The bill includes a number of exemptions, including if a minor obtains a firearm "in the course of self-defense or defense of another person" or by "illegal entry" to a gun owner's home.
The Senate added another exemption, which would be if a minor obtains a firearm "with the authorization of the minor's parent or guardian for lawful hunting, lawful recreational use or any other lawful purpose."
Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, who proposed the amendment, said it was designed to address concerns raised by ranchers and farmers in rural New Mexico.
"Their children are often allowed to do things with firearms that may not be appropriate in Albuquerque," said Neville, who told Stewart "our culture and your culture are totally different where we live."
Neville said his amendment, which several Democrats supported, wouldn't change the intent of the bill.
"If some incident happened, this would not apply to those parents," he said.
Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, introduced a separate amendment the Senate rejected, calling for making a gun owner free of liability "if the firearm was stored to make it readily available for self-defense." He said he would vote in favor if the bill if the Senate adopted his amendment, which Stewart and others said was unnecessary.
"There is nothing in this bill that prohibits you from defending your home and your family that you can't currently do today," said Sen. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque.
Schmedes thanked senators who voted against his amendment after it failed.
"Now I don't have to have a five-hour town hall in my district to explain to my constituents why I voted for a gun bill," he quipped.
Stewart said the bill simply requires gun owners to responsibly store their firearms.
"It's so upsetting in this country with the number of children that are being killed," she said. "This is one method that we can use here in New Mexico that will reduce the death of some of these children that are getting killed with these firearms."
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