March 2, 2023

Bill to raise minimum age to buy semi-automatic firearms stalls in committee

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A proposal to raise the age to 21 to buy or possess semi-automatic firearms, including assault weapons, stalled Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee after a series of tie votes.

Although Senate Bill 116 isn’t dead, it’s on life support as the clock on the 60-day legislative session winds down.

“Right now, the bill remains at the prerogative of the chair,” said committee Chairman Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. “This bill will be scheduled by me like any other bill.”

Cervantes, however, said time is running out with just over two weeks left in the session.

“We’re at that place where all the bills are hitting the Judiciary Committee — there’s many of them; we’re working late hours,” he said. “Inevitably, at this point in time, we get to a triage point.”

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, advised one of the sponsors, Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces, to bring the bill back either with amendments or a substitute to incorporate changes recommended by committee members. 

“This is not dead to me,” Stewart said. “Do not give up. Go upstairs. Get a substitute. Come back.”

Hamblen, who is co-sponsoring SB 116 with Rep. Reena Szczepanski, D-Santa Fe, said she planned to tweak the bill and ask Cervantes to put it back on the table.

The series of 4-4 votes — first to table the bill, then to move it along without a recommendation and then to pass it — stemmed from the absence of Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. Committee members said O’Neill was ill.

During debate on the bill, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, introduced a substitute to restrict only the purchase of semi-automatic firearms, not possession, which the committee rejected 7-1.

“The substitute was a complete surprise,” Hamblen said after the hearing. “The substitute completely guts the bill.”

Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said during the committee meeting Ivey-Soto’s substitute “makes the whole bill meaningless.”

Stewart chastised Ivey-Soto for proposing a substitute bill without consulting the sponsor.

“I just don’t think we should even look at it under those circumstances,” she said.

Republicans have called SB 116 unconstitutional.

“It is frankly unacceptable that we are spending so much time debating these measures while legislation to target criminals and combat crime are being delayed,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen said in a statement after the bill stalled in committee. “The people of New Mexico deserve better.”

Meanwhile, members of the Senate Finance Committee voted 6-4, along party lines, to approve House Bill 9, which makes it a misdemeanor to negligently make a firearm accessible to a minor who then commits a crime with the gun in which someone is threatened or sustains a minor injury and a fourth-degree felony if a minor uses the firearm to cause great bodily harm or death.

The House of Representatives already approved the bill, one of several gun-safety measures making their way through the legislative session.

Rep. Pameyla Herndon, D-Albuquerque, has said the measure was inspired by the August 2021 shooting death of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove at an Albuquerque middle school. Authorities say the boy accused of shooting Hargrove brought his father’s gun to school to commit the crime.

The four Republicans on the committee argued the law would not necessarily stop shootings and could in fact lead to law-abiding citizens being charged if they inadvertently left their guns out.

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, recalled the days when New Mexico youth were taught to use and respect guns, which could be found hanging from the back of a truck cab.

“Guns didn’t get locked up and people didn’t get shot,” he told Herndon.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said “good people” could get caught up in lawsuits because of the law.

But he sided with the five other Democrats on the committee to support the bill.

He cautioned Herndon he wanted to introduce an amendment saying he would only support HB 9 with the agreement of “no special session being called for gun violence” bills.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

Correction: A story published Thursday, March 2, 2023, about firearms legislation incorrectly stated a gun owner could face a misdemeanor if a minor accesses a firearm under House Bill 9 when in fact the minor would have to commit a crime with the gun in which someone is threatened or sustains a minor injury for the gun owner to face the charge.