March 1, 2017

Bill restricting guns in Capitol stalls in Senate

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Open carry rally in Richmond, VA in 2010. Flickr cc

What began as a bipartisan compromise bill to ban people from openly carrying guns in the state Capitol is now bogged down in the Senate and at risk of being defeated.

Senate Bill 337 would restrict possession of guns in the Capitol to police officers and people with a license to carry a concealed firearm.

Sponsored by Sens. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, the bill cleared two Senate committees after being pitched as a way to balance the rights of law-abiding people who want to arm themselves and the impact on visitors to the Capitol who said they were intimidated by others openly carrying firearms, including long guns.

The bill has been on the legislative calendar for a vote by the full, 42-member Senate for a week. But each day it has fallen further down the agenda, and it has never been called for a vote by Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who controls what bills are heard on the Senate floor.

“There are some concerns,” Wirth said Wednesday when asked why the bill has stalled. “We’ll see if we can figure it out.”

Other senators said the bill would face a stack of amendments by opponents if it were called for a floor vote, creating the potential for a free-for-all while lawmakers are still haggling over other weighty matters, especially ways to balance the state budget.

Two senators, Republican Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho and Democrat George Muñoz of Gallup, said they would vote against the bill for vastly different reasons.

Brandt said the proposal is inconsistent with other New Mexico law on guns.

“We’re an open-carry state,” he said in an interview. “How do we say we’re going to let you carry anywhere except when you come to the people’s house, the house you control?”

Even so, Brandt said, he doesn’t believe people should be able to bring long guns into the Capitol. He said those intent on protecting their Second Amendment rights have sometimes carried rifles to legislative hearings when testifying against bills to restrict guns or to require background checks of those who buy firearms at trade shows, through internet transactions or from acquaintances.

If the bill to restrict firearms is called for a floor vote, Brandt said, he would offer amendments, including one to only outlaw open carrying of long guns in the Capitol.

“I don’t think it’s helpful when people show up with rifles,” Brandt said. “I’ve asked people not to do it. Then a lady brought a pink AR [rifle] anyway.”

Muñoz said he opposes the bill on different grounds, viewing the measure as one that would make a cosmetic change without improving public safety.

Anyone can walk into the Capitol without having to go through a checkpoint, Muñoz said, and the building has other deficiencies in security.

For instance, elevators for legislators don’t have cameras and there are weaknesses in the system in which access cards are used to enter certain sections of the Capitol, he said.

The bill to ban open carrying of firearms doesn’t address much less fix the security problems, Muñoz said.

Muñoz favors installation of metal detectors as one step to improve security at a Capitol where anyone can walk in with hidden weaponry, including people who are prohibited from carrying firearms because of criminal convictions.

“We live in a different world,” Muñoz said. “People who want to do harm won’t bring in a 7-millimeter rifle with a scope on it.”

The bill doesn’t specify which agency would enforce firearms laws at the Capitol. But costs could be in the millions if the Legislative Council Service, the agency responsible for building security, decided to use checkpoints to determine if people with concealed weapons were carrying them lawfully. An analysis by the legislative staff of the bill by Sharer and Ivey-Soto cited a cost study from 2013 that estimated startup equipment for security checkpoints at the Capitol and its annex would run $400,000 to $500,000 for each entrance.

With New Mexico in a financial crisis, and the Legislature still trying to balance a budget of more than $6 billion, the firearms bill could face opposition because of the costs.

Ivey-Soto acknowledged that the bill has hit roadblocks from Senate colleagues, but he declined to discuss on the record any opposition to it.

Even if the bill to eliminate open carrying of guns in the Capitol cleared the Senate, it still would have a long way to go in a short time. The measure also would have to receive approval from the House of Representatives before the legislative session ends March 18, and then it would need the governor’s signature to become law.

Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-490-1048. Follow his Ringside Seat column at santafenewmexican.com.

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