March 18, 2017

House rejects Roundhouse ban on openly carrying guns

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

New Mexicans will be free to continue walking the halls and galleries of their state Capitol with guns in hand or strapped to a hip.

The House of Representatives on Friday night rejected a bill that would have prohibited openly carrying firearms in the Roundhouse.

Backers had argued that Senate Bill 337 was a compromise that would continue allowing anyone with a proper license to carry a concealed firearm but end what some say is the intimidating sight of people holding guns during tense committee hearings.

House members voted down the bill 35-31 after nearly 90 minutes of debate that reflected the conflict between security and openness in a building known as the people’s house.

Several Republicans said the bill would be a step toward limiting access to a state Capitol where the public is free to come and go without passing through metal detectors. They said installing airport-style security would be the next step.

“I’m concerned it might take away some of the flavor we have in this building,” said Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell.

A Democrat from Santa Fe, meanwhile, said the bill would not go far enough because it would still allow the open carrying of firearms at other state office buildings.

“I would feel like I had protected myself,” said Rep. Linda Trujillo, “… and left all those other people without the same protections.”

Under the version of the bill voted down by the House, it would have been a petty misdemeanor to illegally carry a firearm in the state Capitol. And illegally discharging a firearm would have been a fourth-degree felony.

The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, had argued the bill was not intended to bar all firearms from the Capitol. Instead, Sharer had referred to it as the “don’t be stupid in the Capitol bill.” He said limiting firearms to those with concealed-carry licenses would be a reasonable step to maintaining a welcoming environment for visitors as well as lawmakers.

The bill was hardly the first effort to restrict firearms in the Capitol of an open-carry state.

The late Rep. Stephen Easley, D-Santa Fe, filed an unsuccessful bill in 2013 to ban most guns from the Roundhouse.

The following year, leading Democrats pushed to change the rules of the House and Senate to prohibit guns. Their efforts failed.

And the Legislature’s Capitol Security Subcommittee has mulled broader security measures, such as installing metal detectors. But the subcommittee this year seems to be focusing on other issues. It has requested money to install better barriers at the entrance to the underground parking garage, change locks on doors and add security cameras around the first floor.

House members expressed pride during the debate Friday night in the Roundhouse’s openness. One lawmaker likened Colorado’s more tightly secured capitol to a tomb.

Many statehouses around the country still allow firearms, even with concerns about terrorism and the proliferation of high-powered guns. But a survey by the Vermont Legislature in 2013 found that, of 44 states polled, 35 had imposed some sort of screening at their capitols, such as metal detectors.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

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