N.M. House approves gun-buyer crime checks

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers waded into the national debate about gun violence Wednesday as the House approved legislation to require criminal background checks of more people who buy firearms at gun shows.

If the measure becomes law, which is far from certain, New Mexico will join at least six other states in having background checks for all firearms purchased at gun shows from private sellers, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Federal law requires those checks for sales by licensed dealers in their stores or at gun shows, but it doesn’t cover private gun sales regardless of the location of the transaction.

Supporters of the legislation said it was a step in trying to reduce gun violence.

“Something needs to get done. We are at a point now where we are seeing these horrible things. And if this bill helps address the problems, and I believe it will in a very significant way, then I am willing to support it,” said Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican.

The measure cleared the House on a 43-26 vote, with eight Republicans joining 35 Democrats in support. Only three Democrats opposed the bill. The proposal goes to the Senate, which tends to be more conservative than the House.

GOP Gov. Susana Martinez, who is licensed to carry a concealed handgun, has said she would sign the legislation if it remains unchanged.

Opponents said more background checks won’t stop shootings and killings or prevent criminals from obtaining guns. They pointed out that legally purchased firearms were used in recent mass killings, including at a Connecticut school in December and last year’s Aurora movie theater shooting.

“It appears that some members are willing to stand up and beat their chests and say we really, really worked hard to develop a crime-prevention bill that has absolutely no chance of preventing crime,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, a Texico Republican. “I believe we’re wasting our time with this particular model.”

The House debate came less than a month after the shooting deaths of five members of an Albuquerque family, including the brother of a former state senator. A 15-year-old boy has been indicted on murder and other charges for the deaths of his parents, a brother and two younger sisters. A .22-caliber rifle and a semi-automatic military-style rifle, which were kept in the parents’ closet, were used in the shootings, according to authorities.

Rep. Miguel Garcia, an Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored the bill, said expanded background checks will help prevent sales of firearms to people prohibited from having them, including convicted felons and individuals with a history of mental illness.

Democrats have long held majorities in the House and Senate, but gun restrictions have rarely received much consideration in past legislative sessions.

In 2001, the New Mexico House rejected a measure that would have required background checks on purchases of weapons from private dealers at gun shows. The same year, the Legislature approved a proposal to require gun dealers to provide safety locks when they sell firearms, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican.

It’s legal in New Mexico to openly carry loaded firearms in most public places, including the Capitol.

The legislation includes provisions to ensure the state regularly provides information to the FBI for its background check system about people ineligible to buy firearms, such as when a New Mexico court commits someone to a mental-health institution. The measure will establish in law the procedures currently followed by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.