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Seeking Attention, Not Solutions in New Mexico – Part 2

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Seeking Attention, Not Solutions in New Mexico – Part 2

As we wrote earlier this year, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) – like many elected Democrats – has shown that she has few scruples against infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners, as well as overlooking her own oath of office, if it means the possibility of advancing a radical gun-control agenda. “No constitutional right, in my view, including my oath, is intended to be absolute,” she memorably replied when a reporter challenged her “public health emergency”- based gun ban.

The governor’s September 8 executive order (since amended and renewed) initially imposed a 30-day ban on carrying firearms in public places under the guise of “a statewide public health emergency.” That order directed all state and political subdivisions “to comply with and enforce all directives issued pursuant to this order" and included a requirement that state agencies conduct monthly inspections of licensed gun dealers to "ensure compliance" with the law. A subsequent “public health” order issued and later renewed by Patrick Allen, Secretary of the New Mexico Health Department, included a requirement that the New Mexico Department of Public Safety “organize safe surrender events” (a.k.a. gun “buybacks”).

A wave of lawsuits challenging the governor’s actions coincided with many state and local officials voicing their opposition to the orders. Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen called her order “unconstitutional,” adding it “will not do anything to curb gun violence other than punish law-abiding citizens for their constitutional right to self defense.” Likewise, San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari, on behalf of the New Mexico Sheriffs Association (NMSA), advised that the NMSA “does not support the governor’s temporary suspension of legal concealed carry and open carry firearms. This will directly impact law abiding citizens.” New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez took the unusual step of informing Lujan Grisham that his “duty to uphold and defend constitutional rights” took precedence over his statutory obligation to defend state officials when they were sued in their official capacity. “I do not believe that the Emergency Order will have any meaningful impact on public safety but, more importantly, I do not believe it passes constitutional muster.”

Another public official who expressed “deep concern” about Lujan Grisham’s September order was the president of the New Mexico Chiefs of Police Association, the City of Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe. By using public health, the “governor has taken the focus off crime,” he said, and her “knee-jerk reaction to curtail the rights of every citizen, rather than focusing on lawbreakers who plague our communities, can’t be justified.”

Chief Hebbe’s municipality was scheduled to hold a gun “buyback” this month in conjunction with the private group New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, but the “plans to partner” in the buyback were “suspended” by the city. The city manager announced that, “[b]ased on questions received from the public, Chief Hebbe and I determined it was apparent the program had not received enough advance education and community collaboration prior to scheduling this event.”

The group, New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence (NMPGV), runs gun buybacks across the state in which gift cards are reportedly offered for each gun turned in. It has also been active in pushing all kinds of gun control measures at the legislative level. One of its “legislative priorities” since 2013 has been ensuring the passage of Senate Bill 8, a “universal background check law” that requires almost all private sales of firearms in the state be made using a federally licensed firearm dealer, with a NICS background check of the buyer “before taking possession of the firearm.” Senate Bill 8 (now N.M.S.A. § 30-7-7.1) was signed into law by Governor Lujan Grisham in 2019.

The statute defines a “sale” as “the delivery or passing of ownership, possession or control of a firearm for a fee or other consideration,” where “consideration” means “anything of value exchanged between the parties to a sale.” A failure to comply is a crime. The very few exemptions include sales to a law enforcement agency; otherwise, each party to an unlawful sale in violation of § 30-7-7.1 “may be separately charged for the same sale.”

At the time Lujan Grisham signed the bill, she warned law enforcement officials (who opposed the bill as ineffective) to “follow the law. They will enforce this law, they will do their job and duty,” she said. She repeated her warning a year later, when a news report looked into whether the law was as “pointless” and “unenforceable” as its opponents claimed. The report quoted a message from the governor’s office that made it clear that the police and sheriffs’ “role is law enforcement – they don’t get to decide to not do so because they don’t like it,” and concluded with a bitter dig. “Perhaps if some sheriff’s offices spent a little less time blatantly flouting critical public health policies, they would be more able to invest their time in protecting their communities from gun violence.” 

Allegations have since emerged that the NMPGV has been carrying out its own “unwanted firearm” collection program in Farmington. Recent news reports (so far, here and here) have raised questions about these buybacks in light of the background check law. The “organization [NMPGV] posted late Saturday on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, [that] it had gone house by house in Farmington to dismantle ‘unwanted firearms’ after the city government pulled the plug on a gun buyback event.” That article included a photo of several firearms that had been cut in half. The article cites the co-president of NMPGV saying that gift cards were made available, but that the “majority of participants did not even want [one].” A state legislator, Rep. Stefani Lord (R-Sandia Park), posted a message on X calling on law enforcement to investigate

San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari – likely keeping in mind the governor’s remarks that law enforcement have no other option but to enforce the law – says he has nothing against the group but is now looking into the matter to ensure “they’re operating lawfully like everyone else.” “Reviewing the law I do not see where they are exempt from having to undergo a background check and are required to like anyone else… A sale is taking place (gift cards $100 and up), it is advertised as a purchase and called a ‘buy back.’”

The investigation is pending along with a possible opinion from the State Attorney General. Of course, persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.   

In the meantime, the New Mexico Shooting Sports Association (“Defending the 2nd Amendment in New Mexico since 1935”) seized the opportunity to post its own tongue-in-cheek take on this situation on X, along with a running commentary as events continued to unfold. “Shout out to [New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence] for joining forces with the ‘rogue sheriffs’ and ‘bad-faith critics’ by refusing to comply with laws criminalizing private firearm transfers in NM,” the gun group wrote. Another post helpfully pointed out that the NMPGV “are the same people who often testify as ‘expert witnesses’ for gun control bills in the NM Legislature.” One commentator responded with, “it’s even funnier when you realize they [NMPGV] made an unregistered SBR…”.

This has the makings of one of those sublime moments when a gun control measure backfires, emphatically, on the very people who aggressively promoted it, while at the same time exposing the possibility that the “bad faith” naysayers may have been right all along. (After all, who can forget Nevada’s Question One?)

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