February 8, 2017

Lawmakers to consider measure to restrict firearms at Roundhouse


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

A man carrying a loaded rifle over his shoulder walks into the New Mexico Capitol. He encounters no metal detectors.

After speaking with a few police officers and Capitol employees, he strolls the halls of the Roundhouse, recording the entire episode.

Viewed nearly a half-million times online, the 2013 video became a viral demonstration of the rights of gun owners to pack heat inside the Roundhouse.

The video soon could become a relic of the past.

Two senators, one from each political party, have introduced a bill to prohibit openly carrying a firearm inside the state Capitol. People with licensed concealed weapons could still enter the building with their firearm.

The bill is just the latest attempt to settle years of debate over how best to maintain public safety at a state Capitol that many legislators say they love for its openness.

Visitors to the Roundhouse come and go as they please, and there are only a few parts of the building they cannot roam. Anyone can step onto the floor of the Senate or House of Representatives when they are not in session.

Some legislators have viewed the lack of airport-style security as endearing. But others have raised concerns about visitors attending hearings on controversial legislation with guns on their hips, saying these displays of deadly weapons are intimidating to those who might wish to express a differing viewpoint.

Meanwhile, some gun owners counter that prohibiting them from carrying a firearm inside the Capitol would make them less safe.

“I think this is a good balance,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington.

Ivey-Soto said the bill will assuage concerns of those who are uncomfortable seeing a visitor to the seat of state government holding a rifle. But the bill would allow those who carry guns for their own safety to remain armed.

Unlawfully carrying a firearm in the Roundhouse would be a misdemeanor, and unlawfully discharging a firearm would be a fourth-degree felony. The laws would apply not just to the Roundhouse but to its North Annex, where state offices are clustered.

Ivey-Soto said he wants the Capitol to remain open and accessible.

“I don’t want to go the route of metal detectors,” he said.

Sharer and Ivey-Soto sit on the Legislature’s Capitol Security Subcommittee. Though the subcommittee has mulled broader security measures, such as installing metal detectors, that idea has gained no momentum. During this session, the subcommittee is requesting money to install better barriers at the entrance to the underground parking garage, changing locks on doors and additional security cameras for the first floor of the state Capitol.

Around the country, nothing might reveal Americans’ conflicting views about public safety and the right to bear arms as the debate over whether to allow guns in state capitols.

Many statehouses still allow guns, despite concerns about terrorism and the proliferation of high-powered firearms.

A survey by the Vermont Legislature in 2013 found a patchwork of policies around the country.

“There is no apparent standard regarding the allowance of guns, nor is there a uniform protocol or process to screen for guns at state capitol buildings,” the report said.

Utah and Washington state, like New Mexico, allow the open carrying of firearms and did not have any metal detectors at the time of the survey.

Of 44 states surveyed, three expressly allow legislators to carry handguns. But 35 capitols had some sort of screening, such as metal detectors.

Texas allows licensed handgun owners to openly carry their weapons after passing through security. Guns are prohibited at the Colorado Capitol, according to the secretary of state. Firearms are prohibited at the Arizona Capitol, too, but some lawmakers continue to carry their guns under legislative rules.

Ivey-Soto and Sharer are not the first to suggest restricting firearms in the Roundhouse.

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

Leading Democrats pushed the following year to change the rules of the Senate and House of Representatives to prohibit guns. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, was part of that effort and says he still supports restrictions on firearms.

Asked about the proposal, he recalled a committee hearing on background checks for gun purchases during which one member of the audience sat with a long gun between his legs and seemed to stare.

“It just sends the wrong message,” Egolf said.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.