February 15, 2020

Governor defends passage of ‘red flag’ gun law

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday she will not abide lack of enforcement by any sheriff or other local government official who opposes a new law intended to reduce gun violence.

Her comments came during a press conference at which she defended her support of Senate Bill 5, which cleared the Legislature on Thursday and which she intends to sign into law, adding New Mexico to the list of states that have passed what are called “red flag” laws.

The measure will allow authorities to petition courts to temporarily remove firearms from someone deemed a threat to themselves or others.

“If just one life is saved, if one potential [dangerous] situation is averted, then we’re doing our job,” she told reporters.

Her comments came after news that Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton told people at a Eunice City Hall meeting Monday he would rather go to jail than enforce the law, which he thinks is unconstitutional.

She called such reactions to the legislation simply “emotional responses to not winning.”

Law enforcement officials, she said, “swear an oath and they don’t get to be policymakers.”

Helton was one of many sheriffs and law-enforcement personnel who spoke against the bill as it made its way through this year’s 30-day legislative session.

He and other opponents said the bill, which will allow a judge to let officers take away firearms for up to 10 days, will be difficult to enforce and violates both the Second and Fourth amendments of the Constitution. Helton said it removes due process from the equation and won’t work as well as existing statutes that allow law enforcement personnel to immediately respond to someone who is armed.

Senate Bill 5 gives people subject to the court proceeding 48 hours to turn in their firearms before police act. 

Proponents say the measure could save lives if law enforcement personnel step in and remove guns from people who are planning to take their own lives or harm others. 

“Are we gonna red flag baseball bats or opioids?” Helton said in response to that notion. 

On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 39-31 to approve the bill, sending it to the governor’s desk for her signature. She said Friday she will sign it as soon as she gets it. 

A day before the House vote, the Torrance County Commission unanimously passed a resolution opposing the bill, saying it removes “officer discretion” from such situations.

Wayne Johnson, county manager for Torrance County, said Friday the bill is a “litigation lawyer’s dream” because it will put sheriffs and police officers in a no-win situation.

If they don’t enforce the law, they risk a jail sentence, he said. If they do enforce it and turn out to be wrong, the person they seized the guns from could sue them.

“This puts us in an untenable situation,” he said. 

Whether other New Mexico counties, cities or sheriffs will join forces to resist the law, as many did last year by passing resolutions calling themselves “sanctuary” counties where gun rights would be upheld, is unclear. 

At that time, the rejection of gun-control legislation was prompted by passage of Senate Bill 8, which expended background check requirements to cover most gun sales in New Mexico.

Lujan Grisham said Friday she was not sure if there had been any arrests or convictions connected to Senate Bill 8, which became law last July. As the anniversary of that law approaches, she said, the state should check with city, county and court officials to find out.

In the interim, she said, New Mexico government leaders do not have the right to ignore the law.

That would be akin to not obeying traffic laws and saying, “I’ll drive however I want and nobody can do anything about it,” she said. 

“It doesn’t work the way,” she said. “That’s chaos.”

She said she expects sheriffs and police officers to “be professional” and do their jobs.