Rising NM gun violence rates prompt scrutiny of state laws

Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton testifies Tuesday to the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, as state Department of Public Safety Deputy Chief Matthew Broom and advocates with the group New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence listen intently. New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest rates of gun violence on a per capita basis. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The number of firearm-related deaths in New Mexico has increased in recent years, with the rate of firearm-related deaths per every 100,000 residents nearly doubling over the last decade.

That has prompted legislators to approve new laws expanding background check requirements and allowing guns to be seized from individuals deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others. But more law enforcement training and better data-sharing efforts are needed to make the laws effective, backers said during a legislative hearing Tuesday at the Roundhouse.

“What we have to worry about is getting officers to understand this, because right now they don’t,” said Sheila Lewis with the group New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, who trains law enforcement officers and other front-line workers on the state’s Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act.

While the state’s “red flag” gun law has only been used nine times since taking effect in July 2020, other gun-related laws have been utilized more frequently.

That includes a law barring individuals subject to domestic violence protection orders from accessing guns, as 114 firearm relinquishments have been ordered in the last six months, Lewis said.

With more gun-related measures expected to be proposed, however, some critics said the recent gun laws do not work as intended.

For instance, Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton told lawmakers Tuesday that law enforcement officials are hampered in enforcing the state’s background check requirement for gun purchases by delays and blocked records on two different databases.

He also said additional law enforcement training requirements mandated in a law passed this year are difficult for rural law enforcement agencies who deal with staffing issues.

“We need to make sure the something we do is going to be effective and is actually going to address the situation,” Hamilton told members of the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers said they’re fundamentally opposed to laws they say unfairly punish law-abiding citizens.

“Until we get to the root causes, we’re just going around and around to punish the guns, constantly,” said Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, who said firearms were also prevalent before violent crime rates began to rise in the 1990s.

But some lawmakers and advocates say more steps must be taken to address an upward trajectory in gun violence that, in New Mexico, has included several school shootings.

Overall, 481 state residents died in 2020 due to firearm-related injuries – up from 472 firearm-related deaths in 2019, according to state Department of Health data. And the rate of 14.9 firearm-related deaths per every 100,000 residents in 2010 skyrocketed over the last decade – there were 23 such deaths for every 100,000 residents in 2020.

“In New Mexico, firearms are the mechanism for carrying out violent death,” said Aryan Showers, the director of the DOH’s Office of Policy and Accountability.

She also said New Mexico’s firearm fatality rate was the seventh-highest in the United States as of 2020, and nearly double the national average.

Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton, takes part in a discussion of gun laws passed in recent years. This is during a meeting of the Courts, Corrections and Justice interim committee meeting at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, Tuesday , July 26, 2022. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In addition, data from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions shows 69% of New Mexico homicides in 2020 were firearm-related, while 59% of suicides were caused by guns.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, the chairman of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, described himself as a longtime gun owner but said it’s clear laws restricting or limiting firearm purchases can lead to reduced violence.

“We know it works, if it’s taken far enough,” said Cervantes, citing Australia’s sweeping 1996 gun control law that was followed by a 60% decrease in gun homicide.

He also said guns are going to be a “key topic” in the 60-day legislative session that starts in January.

While bills have not yet been filed for next year’s session, some of the specific ideas mentioned Tuesday include raising the age to purchase certain AR 15-style semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21, establishing a new state office focused on gun violence prevention and making it a crime for adults to fail to safely secure firearms around children.

The legislative hearing was testy at times, with Cervantes gaveling down a self-described military veteran who told the Democratic ranking committee members to “go to hell,” among other insults, during a scheduled public comment period.

At another point, Cervantes expressed frustration with some sheriffs who vowed not to implement the Extreme Risk Firearm Protection Order Act after it passed in 2020, but said he was willing to work with law enforcement on future gun-related bills.


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