NM lawmakers to look at guns and crime

By Skye McMillon / NM News Port

The January meeting of the New Mexico state legislature will include efforts to ban assault rifles, lessen gun violence, and spend more on public safety next year.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has prioritized gun violence as a top issue. She especially grabbed the public’s attention when she issued an executive public health order to combat crime last October. 

The governor has renewed that public order. And, in a December news conference, she cited the increases in arrests and guns seized as signs of success.

“Are we out of the woods in terms of the public safety issues we are challenged by? We are not.”

Governor Michelle Luhan Grisham

Grisham said the upcoming legislative session will include a focus on public safety.

“This will be a very strong public safety session,” Grisham said at her news conference.

Included in her plan is a proposed ban on assault-style weapons. It would be based on federal legislation sponsored by U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich, D-NM.

“I’ve got a set of lawmakers that are more likely than not to have a fair debate about guns, gun violence, weapons of war, and keeping New Mexicans safe, than members of Congress are,” Grisham said.

The governor also said that she would be going over a set of public safety policy suggestions from New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez.

Gun deaths have been increasing year over year in New Mexico – with the state now ranking as the third worst in the country, according to the CDC. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Firearm Mortality Rate from 2014 to 2021 has slowly increased over the years. New Mexico went from being ranked 8th for Firearm Mortality in 2014 to now being ranked the 3rd highest in the United States. (The rate is measured in the number of deaths per 100,000 people.) Chart by Skye McMillion / NM News Port

As deaths from guns have increased, so has the murder rate. New Mexico went from being ranked 7th for homicide mortality in 2014 to being ranked 4th in the most recent report, per the CDC.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the homicide mortality rate from 2014 to 2021 doubled in seven years. New Mexico went from being ranked 7th for Homicide Mortality in 2014 to now being ranked the 4th highest in the United States. (The rate is measured in the number of deaths per 100,000 people.) Chart by Skye McMillion / NM News Port

“I believe that the governor is going to have priority on how to address gun violence in this state and what can be done without affecting somebody’s Second Amendment rights,” said New Mexico State Representative Pamelya Herndon, a Democrat representing part of Bernalillo County. 

Herdon says lawmakers will be looking at quite a list of measures to address gun violence and improve public safety. These include having a waiting period before someone can purchase a gun, and running a background check on gun purchasers to check for a history of mental illness or having made threats of killing someone. 

She says legislators will also be reinvesting in community-based programs to reduce recidivism, and they’ll be looking to increase budgets for law enforcement to hire more police officers.  

“There really is a rapid growth of gun violence around the country,” Herndon said. “After coming out of COVID, there is some mental anxiety that we really should be in the process of addressing.”

Pamelya Herndon, New Mexico State Representative,
Photo from nmlegis website.

Herndon points to the number of mass shootings this year – higher than ever before. She’s also alarmed by shootings involving young people.

“It’s even more important for them to make sure that they are responsible owners of those firearms, making sure they are kept out of access of minors, or anybody else who shouldn’t have them,” Herndon said.

Governor Grisham has been emphasizing public safety in previous legislative sessions, signing bipartisan measures to fight crime in 2022. And in 2023, she signed a bill that if a minor gained access to an adult’s gun and threatened someone with a gun, it would be a misdemeanor for the adult. And if the victim was killed, then the adult would be charged with a felony. 

Raúl Torrez, New Mexico Attorney General.
Photo from NM AG website.

Attorney General Raúl Torres this month released his legislative wish-list — proposing eight priorities to improve public safety and reduce gun crime in New Mexico.

These eight points are:

1. Effective Juvenile Justice Interventions for Youth with Guns

2. Swift, Certain, and Proportional Consequences for Gun Crimes

3. Recruiting, Retention, Recognition, and Respect for the Public Service of Law Enforcement and Prosecutors

4. Eliminate Illogical Legal and Bureaucratic Frameworks

5. Establish Coherent and Reliable Funding Mechanisms

6. Build the Missing System – For Behavioral Health and Substance Use Disorders

7. Build the Missing System with a Coherent Strategy

8. A Coherent Strategy – The “System” Does Not Function as a System

“I am very troubled by the fact that we don’t have a plan that we can present to the court that the parties can mutually agree to and say this represents the obligations that the state is willing to make and the commitments that the state is willing to make,” Torrez said, speaking on a KUNM radio program in December. He was referring to ways that arrestees might be kept in jail pending trial. Many are pushing for harsher treatment of suspected criminals.

“Everyone wants (safer communities), but both sides can’t agree to have that at this moment,” Torrez said. “With both parties not agreeing in the legislature, it’s hard to make bipartisan laws that can help change our communities for the better.”

Torrez supports more public funding for law enforcement and the courts but sees deeper issues at play, too.

“It’s pretty clear that if money were the real challenge, and we could solve this by just writing the check, we would have already made substantial progress, ” Torrez said.

Interview with Steven Allen, Director of NMP&JP

Steven Allen is the former Director of The New Mexico Prison & Jail Project where he advocated for the rights of people who have been incarcerated. He also helped start New Mexico SAFE, a nonprofit group that helps increase public safety at schools. Allen says you can’t talk about crime without talking about underlying issues, like poverty.

“The idea was that if we dumped lots of people in our prisons and jails, we would make everyone safer, that’s not at all what’s happened,” Allen said. “ The countries that are safer than the United States that have done a better job of protecting citizens and residents and public safety, have a whole bunch of programs that prevent people from being poor.”  

Allen says barriers and systemic inequities can lead people to commit crimes of survival. 

“Aristotle, over 2000 years ago, famously said that poverty is the mother of crime. People who are poor, who don’t have access to good jobs, who are abusing substances, who don’t have access to good health care, and very importantly, who don’t have access to high-quality public education, are astronomically more likely to commit crime than other people,” Allen said. 

Allen calls on New Mexico lawmakers to balance a “get-tough-on-crime” approach with a deeper commitment to social services and systemic change.

“I think there’s some understanding by policymakers that this is the right step forward because the research is so obvious, but the reason why no progress is being made is because, in a political sense, it’s easier to scare the crap out of voters,” Allen said. “With talking about like increased policing, increased incarceration as a way to address public safety is to do the hard work of building up programs that will actually improve public safety,” Allen said.

Herdon says any crackdown on guns will surely bring disagreement about people’s rights to have guns.  

“It’s been harder to make sure that you craft a piece of legislation that will sustain judicial scrutiny. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that the legislature is facing now. How do you absolutely protect those Second Amendment rights? And also make sure that gun violence is indeed a number one priority and that our communities are safe.” Herndon said. 

Opening day for the legislature is January 16th, 2024. The proceeding begin at 6:00 pm, when the governor will give her State of the State address, setting the stage for the 30-day session.