Some hope this is the year for assault weapons ban

Second Amendment

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s push to eliminate assault weapons in New Mexico may dominate the Legislature’s discussion on guns.

But it will have company.

Several gun-related bills have been or will be introduced in this year’s 60-day session, promising a battle royale over the role of guns in a state with a long history of gun ownership — and a searing violence problem.

“There’s a lot of appetite to do this,” Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview. “Every single day we hear something else in the news about what is going on with gun violence and this is the right way to do this.”

Romero has already filed a bill that would make it a fourth-degree felony to own or use “assault weapons” and magazines capable of holding more than 10 bullets. People who own them now would have to destroy or turn in their weapons or take them out of the state. She has also filed one to impose a 14-day waiting period on gun buyers, which would be one of if not the strictest in the country if it were to pass.

“We’ve seen far too many mass shootings and we don’t want one in our community,” Romero said. 

Several other lawmakers have filed or plan to file similar bills, including Sen. Bill Soules, D-Albuquerque, who said in an interview Wednesday he plans to introduce his own version of an assault weapons ban.

Soules said the shooting of over 20 people at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May, where parents were asked to provide DNA samples to help identify their dead children, should be enough to convince political leaders to support such a move this year.

“Assault weapons are only weapons of war,” he said.

Acknowledging the rifles are also used for hunting, Soules said beyond that, “They have no other purpose but killing people.”

Republican lawmakers in the state Senate have already voiced opposition to stricter gun control laws, saying such bans won’t make people as safe as would ensuring violent criminals and repeat felons remain behind bars. And although Democrats have large majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, past efforts to pass similar gun control laws have failed — a law limiting magazine capacity similar to Romero’s failed in committee last year.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said in an interview Wednesday he could not yet predict whether an assault weapons ban would have enough support to make it through both chambers and to the governor’s desk for her signature.

“I really don’t know if it has a chance or not,” he said. “We don’t know where everybody stands.”

He expressed doubt about whether New Mexicans who already owned assault rifles would readily surrender their guns. 

“Who’s going to walk in and say, ‘Here’s my AK,’” he said.

While not all Democrats may be on board with these plans, they do have one important ally — the governor, who in her State of the State address Tuesday called for passing an assault weapons ban this year.

“We will not wait for one more tragedy to occur to take action that makes everyone in our state safer in their homes and communities, and the governor is confident in the Legislature’s commitment to doing the right thing by the people of New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in an email.

Tara Mica, the New Mexico state director for the National Rifle Association, wrote in an email Wednesday a ban “will do nothing to reduce violent crime or enhance public safety, but it will stop law-abiding Americans from exercising their Second Amendment rights. AR-15s are the most popular rifle in America and used by millions for a variety of lawful purposes.”

Zac Fort, legislative affairs officer for the New Mexico Shooting Sports Association, said assault rifles have been used by members of the public for decades with few or no mass shootings until about the 1990s. Ranchers and people in rural communities often use assault rifles to hunt or kill coyotes to protect their livestock, he said. 

“I strongly suspect we would not see very high rates of compliance,” Fort said.

Soules said his proposed legislation would not include enforcing laws against assault rifles that are already legally in the hands of New Mexicans. Romero, though, said the state would have to take a “hard” approach to enforcing the law against current owners of such weapons.

“The question is how willing are we to keep New Mexicans safe and what is at stake to prevent these atrocities from happening?” she said. 

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994 including limits similar to what Romero is proposing, but the law expired in 2004, and subsequent efforts to pass similar federal legislation have stalled in Congress. About a dozen mostly Democratic-run states have assault weapons bans, magazine capacity limits, or both. Illinois became the latest state to pass such a law earlier this month; it is being challenged in court, and could eventually make its way to a U.S. Supreme Court that has been getting more conservative and increasingly gun-friendly over the past decade.

Advocates for an assault weapons ban remain hopeful. Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, wrote in an email her group was grateful for Lujan Grisham’s support.

“These are war tools designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible,” she wrote. “They have tragically become the firearm of choice for mass shooters and are often used by the Mexican Cartel. By banning such weapons, we can help keep both New Mexico and Mexico safer.”

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