Gun owners and dealers have ventured from around the region and filed into a Knights of Columbus hall to buy, sell and trade their wares.

Inside, they find dozens of tables decked with the full panoply: hunting rifles, sleek, purse-sized handguns and the newest, most sophisticated semi-automatic weapons on the market.

This is the Los Alamos Gun Show, held last weekend, smack in the middle of a legislative session that includes pointed debate over bills that could shift New Mexico's relatively lax firearms laws toward a framework of stricter control.

SFR made the trip to take the pulse of gun owners as state policy appears headed for a change. The handful of people who spoke for this story offered nuanced, varied opinions on the proposals—shattering the ease of viewing a nationally polarizing conversation that's often crammed into the neat political boxes of gun control activism and a hard line on the Second Amendment.

As it turns out, gun owners walking the aisles in Los Alamos have beliefs as varied as the firearms for sale. There's no fixed narrative as people discuss bills wending through the Roundhouse, some of which already have passed the Democratically controlled House and Senate.

Some support background checks but oppose all other gun control legislation, while others pledge their allegiance to the Second Amendment yet support certain stringent regulations.

In the last weeks the House passed a bill that requires background checks for the sale of firearms between private parties, closing what advocates call a loophole that only requires background checks for purchases from retailers. Two others include the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, which would allow authorities to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals deemed at imminent risk of suicide, and a bill prohibiting people with domestic abuse convictions or restraining orders from purchasing and owning weapons.

Bills proposed by Republicans include harsher penalties and sentences for felons who are caught possessing or using firearms, among others.

The legislative debate comes against an alarming backdrop: New Mexico ranks eighth-highest nationally for gun deaths per capita, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Further, the overall rate of death by firearm in New Mexico is 53 percent higher than the national average, and suicides make up the majority of those deaths.

Between 1999 and 2016, suicide rates across the nation rose at least 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but have dropped significantly in the two states that pioneered "red flag" laws similar to the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, several rural New Mexico counties have declared themselves Second Amendment "sanctuaries" by passing resolutions limiting sheriffs from enforcing any new gun control regulations. They cite sanctuary cities' refusal to comply with federal immigration law as the precedent.

James Whitehead and Steve Porter stand in front of the counter where Porter oversees sales of ammunition.
James Whitehead and Steve Porter stand in front of the counter where Porter oversees sales of ammunition. | Leah Cantor

One of the vendors at the Los Alamos Gun Show, Russell Mauck of Santa Fe, is clearly excited about the idea of Second Amendment sanctuary counties, calling the strategy "a stroke of genius." Yet Mauck supports background checks for personal gun sales.

"Without background checks, it is very hard to determine how many guns are being legally sold to people who aren't upstanding citizens," he says. "I mean, you could put that weapon in the hands of a felon."

Steve Porter, the show's organizer, says every one of the proposed laws whittles away at the Second Amendment.

"If only the cops and the criminals have the guns, the citizens will be helpless," Porter says.

Regarding the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, he says: "People should be able to make choices about their own body. Whether it be abortion, whether it be medical treatments they wanna try, if they are terminally ill they should be able to try experimental medicines, they should be able to commit suicide."

Glenda Benally overhears the conversation and comes up to challenge Porter's view. As he leaves to help a customer, Benally tells SFR she supports nearly all the gun control bills on the table this session.

Now retired, she worked as a professional mediator for many years and has a concealed carry license. "Most deaths by gun are suicides and crimes of passion, both of which are equally fueled by desperation. Until we start teaching kids the skills of expressing feelings and listening to one another, we need all of these regulations," she says.

Sitting at the entrance to the hall, James Whitehead ensures that attendees' guns are not loaded and secures the trigger of each with a zip-tie. Whitehead recently ran for sheriff in Los Alamos. He opposes stricter background checks.

"The biggest issue is that registration would be required," he says. "Registration is the first step to confiscation. I think the job of the citizenry when considering legislation is not to ask how it could be used, but how it could be abused."

Whitehead fears that the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act and the bills designed to protect domestic abuse victims could be used vindictively against people who have not been convicted of any crime. However, he supports legislation to increase sentences for felons in illegal possession of a weapon.

Terrell Smith of Los Alamos hesitates when asked about extending convictions for non-violent felons charged with illegally carrying a weapon.

"I don't think nothing should be held over nobody's head forever," he says, "especially if they've gone a period of time showing that they are law-abiding."

Cheryl Head and her daughter Emma drove come up from Silver City. At first Cheryl voices opposition to the bills designed to protect domestic violence victims. On second thought, she says, "I don't like guilty until proven innocent, but I do see that sometimes you need to save people while you figure out the rest of it."