Three bills that would ramp up statewide firearms restrictions shot out of their first legislative committee Thursday night with support from Democratic lawmakers.
The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee recommended passage of the bills—all of which are also backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham—on party-line votes of 4-2 after a mixed bag of charged testimony that lasted for hours. The measures would raise the legal age for firearm purchases to 21; establish a 14-day waiting period after buying a gun; and ban gas-operated semi automatic firearms.
Majority Whip Reena Szczepanski, D-Santa Fe, argued the bill to raise the age for firearm purchases, House Bill 127, would keep a vulnerable population safer.
“I hope you will find this legislation to be urgently needed and a common sense measure to prevent our children dying from gun violence,” said Szczepanski, one of the bill’s sponsors. “New Mexico has one of the highest rates of firearm deaths among children. This bill is just one part of the solution.”
Edgewood Mayor Kenneth Brennan, however, joined the voices against the measure, arguing the bill penalized “extremely responsible people,” such as those aged 18 to 20 who live on their own.
“These people work hard and learn hard, and there are plenty enough people 18 to 20 that own their own property and need to protect themselves and their livestock, and you are taking that right,” Brennan said.
Cindy Benedict, a Rio Rancho resident with Moms Demand Action, told the committee the rate of gun deaths in New Mexico increased 80% from 2012 to 2021, meaning “it’s clear we have a problem.”
“Since last year, the largest cause of death of our children is gun violence, and that comes back to the concept of teenagers having access to guns,” Benedict said. “If young adults are not mature enough to consume alcohol legally, I suggest they probably shouldn’t be allowed to purchase a weapon.”
The legislation will not impact those in the age range 18 to 21 who are peace officers or law enforcement; are using firearms when on private property under the supervision of parents or for hunting or shooting ranges. Szczepanski added that .22 caliber rifles are also excluded from the bill.
Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, a sponsor of the 14-day waiting period, House Bill 129, and the ban on gas-operated semi automatic firearms, House Bill 137, told the committee the proposed “cool-off period” for HB 129 works to close a loophole that allows people whose background check has not yet been completed to obtain a firearm after three days. The wait can prevent some suicides and gun deaths, she said.
“Any ability for us to save lives within the evidence that we do have is in particular why we are here today,” Romero said. “Even saving one life due to access to a firearm during that period is exactly why we’re here: to save lives and diminish risk to the lives of those who can obtain firearms.”
Opponents of the bill argued that for those fleeing domestic violence situations, the law would heighten the risk.
“A waiting period delays the ability of those who have a sudden need for a defensive firearm to protect themselves. We’ve seen a huge rise in criminality and threats to people in our society at large in the past few years,” Nate Eskey, a member of the Albuquerque-based Zia Rifle and Pistol Club, said. “I don’t know who on the committee may or may not own a gun, but if you do and you receive a criminal threat, I wouldn’t wish any of you to have to wait two weeks to protect yourself when some lunatic takes after you.”
Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, who voted against all three measures along with Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said the law that will “disproportionately affect rural New Mexicans.”
“I know that the governor always says that we must be making evidence-based legislation, and I just don’t see that evidence-based approach in New Mexico,” Block said. “With the current gas prices I see this as a tax for the rural communities of New Mexico because they literally have to drive to the next county to obtain this firearm.”
Legislation to ban gas-operated semi automatic firearms—modeled on US Sen. Martin Heinrich’s proposed Gas-Operated Semi-Automatic Firearms Exclusion (GOSAFE) Act—drew strong support from Penelope Smart, a member of Students Demand Action. Smart implored the committee to pass the HB 137, arguing the United States was built on “radical and brave” legislation.
“I don’t understand why people need these for self defense. It might be your right to own them but it’s my right to feel safe and protected in my school and in my community,” she said, noting she knew people who died as a result of gun violence.
Lord took issue with a clause that would allow New Mexicans who already owned gas-powered firearms to grandfather them in through a registry with the Attorney General’s Office.
“This is punishing legal gun owners. It’s not going to do anything; criminals, they could care less,” Lord said. “I’m not ever registering a gun in my lifetime…There’s no way I’m ever going to vote for a gun registry.”
Prior to the hearing, Romero attended a virtual news conference hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety alongside Lujan Grisham to boost their shared legislative priorities. Romero recalled coming out of a concert as a teenager when a shooter fired into a crowd and hit her friend. She used her shirt to tend to the wound, she said.
“I think so much about what if I would’ve caught a stray bullet at that time like my classmate did,” Romero said.
The governor vowed in December to pursue the gun bills and has taken aim at the state’s gun violence through other actions. The New Mexico Supreme Court heard arguments Jan. 8 in a lawsuit brought by all members of the Republican caucuses in the state House and Senate, the National Rifle Association and others challenging orders from Lujan Grisham’s administration that declare guns a public health emergency. The governor renewed the order, and a similar order addressing drugs, for 30 days on Dec. 29.
“Weapons of war do not belong in the hands of everyday Americans or New Mexicans and should not be available to anyone for future purchase,” Lujan Grisham said in the news conference, adding she feels good about the chances of passage for the public safety package. “This is the time to take real action…We can’t wait around for Congress; the states are going to have to lead the way here.”
Lujan Grisham said she welcomed debate, including in court, noting she believes “courts balancing the question are beginning to recognize” limits to the right to bear arms, and taking new approaches such as regulating gun manufacturing will “shift the challenges and legal responses.”
“For policymakers like me, I’d love it if it was just so clear that there won’t be constitutional questions, but a democracy works through having these questions debated in different formats,” she said. “I think that’s part of the strength here.”
If the government wants to help end growing desensitization to gun violence, she added, “these kinds of laws have to be on the books.”
Romero; Rep. Joanne J. Ferrary, D-Las Cruces; Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces; and Elizabeth “Liz” Thompson, D-Albuquerque, voted in favor of the measures.
The bills move to the House Judiciary Committee next.