New Mexico Inches Toward Stricter Gun Controls

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Martin Vosseller, of Alamogordo, N.M., joined several gun-rights groups from around the state for a rally in Santa Fe on Friday. Mark Holm for The New York Times

nytimes.com | Feb 10, 2013

By DAN FROSCH

SANTA FE, N.M. — As state lawmakers around the country wrestle with whether to tighten gun laws, the fierce debate has not always fallen neatly along party lines — especially in the West.

Take New Mexico, where Democrats have dominated both chambers of the Legislature for decades, where Barack Obama twice won handily and where lawmakers have shown a willingness to back progressive causes like medical marijuana and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

But in this largely rural state, where old Hispanic families have hunted, ranched and farmed the mountain valleys and mesas since Spanish settlers first arrived in the 1500s, efforts to restrict firearms have been viewed warily.

This is a place where you can bring your gun almost anywhere. You can even carry your weapon openly in the Capitol, if you wish — one of only a few states that allows open or concealed carry in their statehouses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There have never been any advocates or lobbyists working on gun laws here. The N.R.A. has always been the only game in town,” said Pat Davis, executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, a liberal political group that supports stricter gun laws. “We have not seen the Auroras or the Virginia Techs here.”

This year, though, is one of the first times in recent history that any significant effort has been made to regulate guns in New Mexico.

In January, State Representative Miguel P. Garcia, a Democrat from Albuquerque, proposed legislation requiring background checks for purchases of firearms made at gun shows and through private sales — both currently unregulated in New Mexico.

The proposal comes just weeks after the brother of a former state senator was shot to death, along with his wife and three of their children. Their 15 year-old son was arrested and charged in the case, which has shocked New Mexico.

Mr. Garcia’s initial bill stalled in a committee hearing after a Democratic lawmaker sided with Republicans against it. But in a compromise, Mr. Garcia introduced a less restrictive version, eliminating background checks on private sales but increasing cooperation between state and federal authorities to keep track of people with mental illness.

“That was a hard pill to swallow,” Mr. Garcia said in an interview. “But if we put together a nonpartisan initiative, we can win over more members of the Legislature and more Democrats will vote for this.

“The reality of the state of New Mexico is that we’ve got a lot of Democrats that represent moderate and conservative leaning districts with a high number of gun owners.”

Late Friday, Mr. Garcia’s bill passed easily in the committee with bipartisan support, a few hours after dozens of gun proponents rallied at the Capitol, carrying pistols and semiautomatic rifles.

“Don’t tell us we can’t be here, because it’s not true,” said a protester with a pistol strapped to his thigh. That New Mexico is only now inching toward more gun regulation belies the social and geographic intricacies that can make the gun debate so complex.

By comparison, neighboring Colorado, which historically leans more conservative, has weighed gun control legislation for years — spurred by the shooting at Columbine High School, and more recently the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora.

After the attack at Columbine, voters in Colorado overwhelmingly approved a measure in 2000 that closed the so-called gun-show loophole. And last week, Colorado Democrats unveiled a package of bills that includes universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

In New Mexico, State Senator George K. Muñoz, a Democrat from Gallup, said that guns had long been woven into the lives of the state’s rural Hispanic and Native American population, many of whom vote Democratic.

Mr. Muñoz, who said he was open to supporting Mr. Garcia’s legislation, sponsored a bill several years ago allowing individuals with concealed carry permits to bring their guns into restaurants that serve beer or wine, unless explicitly prohibited.

The measure passed and was signed by Gov. Bill Richardson, the state’s most powerful democrat at the time.

“I live in rural New Mexico. If the coyotes come to eat my cats, I’m going to have to shoot the coyotes,” Mr. Muñoz said. “When you say, ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that,’ then everything goes underground.”

He added: “So how do you regulate guns? I don’t know.”

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