By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham started the year with high hopes of making a dent in the crime and gun violence that disproportionately seem to plague New Mexico.
Her 21-point package included both stricter gun laws and tough-on-crime initiatives. Taken together, the governor said during a news conference in January, the bills comprised the “largest, most comprehensive package” of such bills in the history of the Legislature.
Maybe so, but with this year’s 30-day session set to end at noon on Thursday, most of them seem to be some distance from the finish line.
“We’re getting late in the session; we only have a week to go,” Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, said in an interview Thursday. Chandler has her name on two gun bills — one to make it easier to take guns away from people who might threaten themselves or others, one to go after gun sellers whose weapons end up in the wrong hands — that have stalled and may not get restarted, she said. Both are in a holding pattern just outside the landing field known as the House floor.
It could be difficult to get either bill through the House and then over to the Senate for vetting and support, she said, for one reason: “They are going to be racing against the clock.”
That clock is ticking away and those bills are among more than 750 pieces of legislation introduced in this year’s session. They are fighting for attention against a raft of bills that have nothing to do with crime or guns, including approving a budget for the coming fiscal year.
In short, it’s priority time, and a lot of things are going to be left stuck behind in the mud.
What you will see now, said Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, is a focus on the budget and capital outlay bills, meaning “some of the other issues will fall by the wayside and they won’t have a chance to make it.”
Still, he said he expects long Senate floor sessions Friday and Saturday in an effort to move some bills forward, including gun-related legislation.
“Gun safety and gun issues will take up quite a bit of time,” he said in an interview.
Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, also expressed optimism some crime bills can make it.
“I think we’ll be on the floor a lot, I think we can still do it,” she said.
On the other hand she, like most Republicans and some conservative Democrats, is less enamored of supporting any new gun laws that, as they see it, violate the right to bear arms.
“I don’t want any of the gun bills [to get through],” she said in an interview.
A bill to put a seven-day waiting period on gun sales has passed the House and seems to have a chance in the Senate, where it could get a floor vote soon. Another bill to ban guns at polling places has already passed the Senate and is working its way through the House. However, others — such as Chandler’s and one from Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, to ban certain types of guns and high-capacity magazines — seem to have entered a legislative black hole, which is often what has happened in past sessions with proposals to tighten New Mexico’s gun laws.
“Public safety continues to be a top concern for New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Maddy Hayden wrote in an email, citing the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce’s recent 2024 Voter Pulse survey. She noted that the waiting period bill was moving through the Legislature but said much more needs to be done.
“While this is a significant piece of legislation that will save lives, dozens of other pieces of critical public safety legislation [are] stalled,” Hayden wrote. “It is unacceptable that other common-sense gun safety legislation, increasing criminal penalties for violent offenders and keeping dangerous individuals behind bars pending trial are not receiving the attention the public is demanding and that it deserves. We urge the Legislature to take up these bills immediately.”
Tara Mica, state director for the National Rifle Association, who has been lobbying on behalf of the group at the Roundhouse for about 25 years, said what’s happening this year is nothing new. Bills that strengthen criminal penalties, she said, often don’t have a “strong shelf life. … They get buried in committee up here. That’s not just this session. That’s been happening for decades.”
Albuquerque pollster and political analyst Brian Sanderoff said at this point in the legislative game, if it becomes clear a bill does not have the support of the majority of the Legislature or the strong support of a committee chair it will likely “die just because time is running out.”
Several crime-fighting measures supported by the governor have already been killed in committees, such as one giving judges and prosecutors more leeway to detain those suspected of violent crimes behind bars until their trial and one that would crack down on panhandling. Other bills in the governor’s public safety package are still waiting to get a committee hearing.
A few of those could still break out, said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque. Rehm, a retired police officer, has pushed unsuccessfully for a number of crime-fighting initiatives in past years, including raising the penalties for felons caught in possession of a firearm. Though that piece of legislation, House Bill 315, seemed to have no chance throughout the first three weeks of this session, it is scheduled to get its first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
“I think we’re going to get maybe one of my bills through,” Rehm said in an interview Thursday.
Sanderoff said it is premature to assume any bill cannot be driven to the finish line in the last week of the session. He said if Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and Democratic lawmakers in both parties want a bill to succeed, “there is still time to get it through the legislative process.”
“We can move something in a couple of days if we decide we need it,” he said.