N.M. Legislature, U.S. Congress diverging on gun sale background checks

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While the New Mexico Legislature is moving toward expanding mandatory background checks, Congress is heading in the other direction. (photo cc info)

A House committee on Saturday advanced a bill that would expand required background checks to include most gun purchases in New Mexico.

After a hearing that lasted more than three hours, the Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted 3-1 along party lines in favor of House Bill 50, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos. The committee’s action mirrored that of a Senate panel that last week approved an identical proposal, Senate Bill 48.

While the New Mexico Legislature is moving toward expanding mandatory background checks, Congress is heading in the other direction.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week voted 235-180 to scuttle an Obama-era rule requiring background checks for gun purchases by some Social Security recipients with mental disabilities. If this measure passes the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, Republican President Donald Trump is expected to sign it.

In presenting her state bill Saturday, Garcia Richard said her family owns guns. But, she said, “New Mexico has a problem, a problem that contributes to New Mexico being the deadliest state for domestic violence.”

She also said that Davon Lymon, who is charged with murdering Albuquerque Police Officer Daniel Webster in 2015, reportedly bought the gun used in the killing in the parking lot of a Wienerschnitzel fast-food restaurant in Albuquerque.

Garcia Richard said she recently saw how easy it is to get a gun with no background checks. Her family bought a handgun for her daughter, a Ruger .357 LCR pistol, which she displayed at the lectern as she spoke to the committee. She said she saw the gun advertised online, met with the seller at a McDonald’s restaurant, showed no identification, paid in cash and drove away.

Under the bill, most gun sales would require a background check. Exceptions would be transfers between family members and temporary transfers of firearms while hunting, target shooting at gun ranges or between law enforcement officers.

Among those who spoke in support of the bill was Raúl Torrez, the new district attorney in Bernalillo County. He said it would help stem the increase in gun violence in Albuquerque.

State Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, told the committee that her sister-in-law was murdered by a gunman. Had HB 50 been in effect, she said, that killing might have been prevented.

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Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, a committee member who voted against the bill, said he also had lost a family member to gun violence.

Miranda Viscoli of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence said her group recently spoke to an elementary school class. She said 18 of the 20 students knew victims of gun violence. “The children are scared,” Viscoli said. She said the bill would stop Mexican drug cartels from buying firearms at New Mexico gun shows.

As was the case during the Senate committee hearing last week, law enforcement officials testified against the move to expand background checks, saying it would be impossible to enforce and that criminals would continue to illegally buy guns or steal them.

“We already have gun laws that aren’t being enforced,” Michael Shumate, undersheriff of Union County, said Saturday.

Also testifying against the House bill were several ranchers. Among them was Dave Sanchez of Rio Arriba County, representing the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association. He said the expanded background checks would be burdensome to rural families.

And nine Republican House members spoke against the bill. Some said they’d received many emails and phone calls opposing it. Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, said the bill is so flawed it “degrades” the Legislature.

Many opponents talked about problems with enforcing background checks for temporary transfers of guns, as called for in the bill. Garcia Richard, though, said her main interest is in sales, mainly at gun shows and on the internet.

The bill next goes to the House Judiciary Committee.

Voters in Nevada last year narrowly passed a ballot measure on background checks that is similar to the New Mexico bills. However, that state’s Republican attorney general, Paul Laxalt, recently issued an opinion saying that the law is unenforceable as written.

The background check rule that the U.S. House of Representatives voted to abolish requires the Social Security Administration to provide information to the gun-buying background check system on recipients with a mental disorder so severe they cannot work and need someone to handle their benefits. That rule, made final in December, would have affected an estimated 75,000 people.

The Associated Press last week quoted Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, as saying, “There is no evidence suggesting that those receiving disability benefits from the Social Security Administration are a threat to public safety. Once an unelected bureaucrat unfairly adds these folks to the federal background check system, they are no longer able to exercise their Second Amendment right.”

Trump last year accepted the endorsement from the National Rifle Association, which opposes the expansion of background checks, including the bills being considered in New Mexico. His campaign website says of background checks, “We need to fix the system we have and make it work as intended. What we don’t need to do is expand a broken system.”

Contact Steve Terrell at (505) 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.

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