Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Senate panel, on party-line vote, approves bill increasing minimum age to buy high-powered guns

A row of AR-15-style rifles displayed at a gun store in Burbank, Calif., in this June 2022 file photo. A bill that would make it a crime in New Mexico for individuals under age 21 to buy or possess such high-powered firearms cleared its first assigned Senate committee Monday on a party-line vote. (AP Photo/Jae C Hong)

SANTA FE — A push to increase the minimum age to buy certain firearms from 18 to 21 cleared its first Senate hurdle Monday, after a heated committee hearing in which backers cited recent mass shootings and opponents raised concerns about law-abiding gun owners being prosecuted.

The bill, Senate Bill 116, is one of several gun-related bills that have been filed during this year’s 60-day legislative session by Democratic lawmakers.

Specifically, the measure would make it a misdemeanor offense in New Mexico for individuals under age 21 to purchase or possess AR-15-style rifles — and other similar automatic and semiautomatic weapons — though it would provide some exceptions, including shooting at a firing range and attending a gun safety class.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces, said New Mexico already prohibits individuals under age 21 from purchasing semi-automatic handguns, describing it as a “discrepancy” in state statute.

“Ultimately, this is not a bill to remove guns from people,” said Hamblen, who described the bill’s intent as instead setting parameters on gun ownership.

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But critics weren’t convinced.

Tiffany Rivera, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, said firearms play an essential role in many rural New Mexicans’ lives, adding many residents currently carry firearms to defend themselves and their animals.

A representative with the National Rifle Association also spoke against the bill, saying New Mexico’s gun violence rate increased after state lawmakers approved a 2019 bill expanding background check requirements for firearm purchases,

“You are making criminals out of law-abiding citizens,” added Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice. “You’re not stopping the gun violence.”

However, the bill was ultimately approved by the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on a party-line 6-3 vote, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition.

Sen. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, predicted the bill would be upheld as constitutional if challenged.

“I think this hits a really good, reasonable spot balancing individual liberties and public safety,” Maestas said.

New Mexico’s firearm fatality rate is among the nation’s highest and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called on lawmakers to pass additional gun safety measures during this year’s session.

A total of 562 state residents died in 2021 due to firearm-related injuries—up significantly from 481 firearm-related deaths in 2020, according to state Department of Health data. Of that amount, more than half — or 319 cases — were classified as suicides and 243 were classified as homicides.

The measure now advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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