By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
As an avid motorcyclist, snowboarder and gun enthusiast, retired Illinois state trooper Wilfredo Rivera said he couldn’t find a better place to call home than New Mexico.
A year and a half after moving to Rio Rancho, however, Rivera is questioning whether he made the right choice.
“All of a sudden, I now find myself deciding if having moved here, coming across the country, is going to turn out to be one of the most costly and biggest mistakes of my life because of some of these bills that are starting to come down the pike,” Rivera told the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on Monday as it heard the latest in a series of gun-control measures introduced in this year’s 60-day legislative session.
Senate Bill 171, which would make it a fourth-degree felony to manufacture, sell, barter, trade, gift, transfer or acquire automatic firearms and other weapons, among other restrictions, cleared the committee on a party-line, 6-3 vote despite constitutional concerns with the legislation.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said early in the discussion she worried the bill was “extremely broad.”
“I’ve worked on gun bills and what I’ve learned is it’s very, very difficult to thread the needle of what is constitutionally permissible and what is not,” she said.
Sedillo Lopez voted to advance the bill, nonetheless.
“I voted yes because I think reducing gun violence in our state is an important policy,” she said before advising the sponsor, Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, to work on improving the bill before he presents it to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, also voted in favor of the bill but said it wouldn’t make a big difference.
“We’re still going to have mass killings. We’re going to have millions of people killed by guns,” he said. “The big elephant in the room is there’s way too many guns. This country is gun crazy. This country is obsessed with guns.”
Soules said last year’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 students and two teachers dead, precipitated the bill.
“The children were so shot up that they could only be identified by their DNA records,” he said. “As an educator, that’s frightening. The police were afraid to go in for more than 90 minutes. That’s frightening when we’ve got weapons of this sort that are available in many places.”
Two law enforcement officers testified against the bill.
“I do understand the pressure that our legislators are in with the growing crime crisis that we have in the state of New Mexico,” said San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari, president of the New Mexico Sheriffs Association, which opposes the bill.
“But what we need as law enforcement is tougher laws to go after criminals, not laws that go after law-abiding citizens,” he added. “A lot of times we start focusing on the tool rather than the act.”
Guadalupe County Sheriff Lorenzo Mata agreed, saying the bill would turn “regular citizens into criminals.” As a sheriff who works the trenches, Mata said he finds criminals, from members of motorcycle gangs to cartels, often tell him they like New Mexico because they only get a slap on the wrist if they get caught.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve arrested people for felon in possession of firearms, and they plea bargain right away,” he said. “Nothing happens to them. If we enforce the law more on the criminal, then stuff will get done.”
The committee amended the bill to remove a prohibition on “mufflers, silencers or devices for deadening or muffling the sound of discharged firearms.”
Knox Williams, president of the American Suppressor Association, said a ban on suppressors “would do nothing to deter crime” but deprive New Mexicans from “one of the most effective tools” to protect their hearing.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.