Mayor Alan Webber has long championed ideas to confront the scourge of gun violence, from designating certain city-owned properties as gun-free zones to mulling a tax on ammunition.
Now Webber is pushing a proposal to repeal a provision of the state constitution that prevents local governments from regulating firearms as they so choose.
As part of a resolution establishing the city’s priorities for the upcoming 30-day legislative session, Webber is calling on the Legislature to place a constitutional referendum on the ballot asking voters statewide to remove a preemption statute that states “no municipality or county shall regulate, in any way, an incident of the right to keep and bear arms.”
Webber, a liberal Democrat who has served as mayor since 2018, said he’s pushed the idea during his time in office.
“If we want to try to provide local leadership in the area of gun violence prevention, we have to give the authority to local governments to establish ordinances that would address the concerns of their residents,” he said in a brief telephone interview.
“Right now, the state constitution preempts that, so it’s a simple matter of asking the voters of New Mexico through a ballot measure: Do you believe that local governments should have the authority to legislate gun violence prevention measures that are different from what the state has done?” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the question should be part of a larger discussion on gun safety during the 2024 legislative session, which begins Jan. 16.
“There’s a key kind of proviso on that, though, from me,” he said. “If we’re going to open this up and let the voters decide whether to open it up, namely the ability to regulate at the local level when it comes to guns, I want to be sure that there’s language that says, ‘On the condition that no regulation can be less stringent than the state law on gun safety,’ so we don’t have just a variety of local governments basically undermining the existing regulations at the state level.”
Hannah Hill, executive director of the legal arm of the National Association of Gun Rights, described repealing the preemption law as “open season on the Second Amendment” at the local level.
“Gun rights advocates need to be prepared to start playing whack-a-mole with the Second Amendment if this preemption law repeal passes,” she said.
State Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, a staunch gun rights advocate, echoed the sentiment, arguing allowing local governments to adopt their own regulations would lead to a checkerboard of laws across New Mexico.
“It opens up legal gun owners being arrested and violated because how are they going to know what the laws are in each municipality? Can I carry a gun? Can I not carry a gun? What’s banned? What’s not banned?” she said. “It’s absolutely not fair to legal gun owners, and it’s a violation of our Second Amendment.”
The city of Santa Fe’s proposed resolution establishing its legislative priorities is scheduled to be considered Monday by the Finance Committee and then by the governing body Nov. 30.
Other legislative priorities listed in the proposed resolution include a ban on assault-style weapons, raising the age of purchase for certain rifles and creating a state Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, who chairs the Finance Committee, said she plans to support the mayor’s proposal to ask voters to eliminate New Mexico’s preemption law.
“I think it’s an important conversation that the Legislature should have,” said Romero-Wirth, who is married to the Senate majority leader.
Asked whether removing the preemption law would infringe on residents’ right to bear arms, Romero-Wirth pointed to a law Colorado passed in 2021 permitting a local government “to enact an ordinance, regulation, or other law governing or prohibiting the sale, purchase, transfer, or possession of a firearm, ammunition, or firearm component or accessory.”
“They passed legislation to give local jurisdictions more latitude to set their own gun control regulations,” she said. “But they did add in some language that said local governments … couldn’t be less restrictive than state law. … I think my constituents are interested in their local officials being able to set some rules that are appropriate for our community.”
Romero-Wirth didn’t offer any specific regulations for Santa Fe.
“I think just being able to decide and have conversations with the community about what we think we need would be an important first step,” she said. “I don’t have an agenda as of yet. I’d want to reach out to the community and to other leaders and other areas, like our schools, and decide what kinds of measures we think are appropriate for Santa Fe and go from there.”
Hill, who lives in Colorado, said a repeal of that state’s preemption law two years ago immediately led to litigation.
“It started with a series of local governments here in Colorado passing citywide assault weapons bans and magazine bans in direct response to the Colorado Legislature repealing the preemption law,” she said. “So, anyone who’s concerned about the Second Amendment being protected should be very, very concerned at the idea of the preemption law repeal being passed.”
A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association did not return messages seeking comment.
Getting on the agenda
Unlike 60-day sessions, in which all lawmakers can introduce bills without the governor’s support, 30-day sessions are focused on the budget. The approval of the governor is required to place any other issues on the agenda.
J.D. Bullington, a lobbyist for the city of Santa Fe, said it was premature for him to comment on legislative priorities until they’ve been approved by the governing body. However, he noted proposed constitutional amendments are germane to any legislative session.
“They are introduced as legislative resolutions that do not require the governor’s signature,” he said.
Lawmakers expect gun safety measures to be part of Lujan Grisham’s agenda. Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said during a legislative committee meeting last week that in a conversation with the governor’s chief of staff, it was clear she “would have gun legislation in her call for the coming session.”
Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the Lujan Grisham administration would be interested in learning more about Webber’s proposal.
“Generally speaking, we do believe that local governments should be able to implement restrictions on firearms that are more stringent than state or federal laws as deemed necessary for public safety,” she wrote in an email.
In a letter to the governor last month, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller also called for exploring “the removal of the preemption on cities from addressing assault rifle proliferation” to reduce gun violence.
Keller wrote he was offering “proactive requests” in response to an executive order the governor issued declaring a state of public health emergency due to gun violence.
“You asked for action, and we can deliver, but to do so we need action from the State to give us the authority, tools and resources to urgently combat crime,” he wrote. “From existing laws that pre-empt cities from regulating assault weapons to addiction and treatment services, local government cannot do this alone.”
The call to explore eliminating the preemption law is included in the city’s Metro Crime Initiative, Ava Montoya, a spokeswoman for Keller, wrote in an email. She said the Metro Crime Initiative “is a comprehensive set of public safety priorities that we’ve been taking to the state Legislature for a few years now.”
House Republican spokesman Matthew Garcia-Sierra described the mayor’s proposal as misguided.
“It is not surprising that the politicians in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the most dangerous cities in the state, want to make it even more difficult for the people to protect themselves and their families,” he said. “We need to focus on mental health reforms and keeping dangerous criminals off our streets, not attacking law-abiding citizens’ rights.”
Looking for ‘statewide solutions’
State Rep. Reena Szczepanski, D-Santa Fe, said she will be focused on “statewide solutions” to address gun violence during the upcoming legislative session.
“I understand everyone is frustrated. We’ve all been hoping for federal action on this issue. We have been hoping that a lot of the solutions we’ve been working on will come to fruition, and we would start to see a reduction” in gun violence, she said, referring to other gun-related measures already passed by the Legislature.
Szczepanski said she plans to reintroduce a bill to raise the age to 21 to buy or possess semi-automatic firearms — legislation that stalled in committee during the 2023 session. She described a separate bill to create a waiting period for firearms sales as another statewide solution.
“Those are a couple of [bills] that I really think we’re close to having enough support to getting those passed in the Legislature,” she said.
While the Legislature will consider eliminating the preemption law if it’s among the city’s legislative priorities, Szczepanski said amending the state constitution requires a lot of careful analysis.
“I think the spirit of, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do on the city level’ is important, I really feel strongly that we need some statewide action on this,” she said.
State Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, said she appreciated Webber’s proposal.
“Because of the tragedies we’ve seen, I think all of the tools need to be out and ready for us to consider,” she said.
“In order for us to reduce gun violence,” Romero added, “we should really be thinking about what the opportunities are and how it is that we can craft policy to meet the demands of, in particular, our communities that are asking us to do more.”
Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, said her organization would “100% support” a constitutional amendment to eliminate the preemption law “if it’s written correctly.”
“Preemption is a tricky one,” she said. “If you get rid of preemption, it could go the other way. You could have a county say, ‘Everyone has to own an AR-15.’ ”
As long as local ordinances, regulations or laws cannot be less restrictive than state law, Viscoli said her organization could get on board.
“I think it’d be a heavy lift [during a 30-day session], but at least the city’s trying to keep us safe,” she said. “Any piece of gun violence prevention legislation during a budget session is a heavy lift, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try because right now, too many people are dying. We have the third highest rate [of gun deaths] in the country, so good for them for trying. We’re at a crisis point, and very little is being done about it.”