Thirty sheriffs, four Democratic state senators and a cast of hundreds faced off Tuesday in a 90-minute debate that had only one piece of common ground.
Everyone agreed the government taking away someone’s guns can be a matter of life and death. After that, the sheriffs had no use for the Democratic lawmakers, who advanced a bill they admitted was half-baked.
The proposal, Senate Bill 5, would enable a family member or law enforcement officer to obtain a civil court order authorizing police to confiscate the guns of someone accused of posing a danger to himself or others.
Even some of the senators who voted for the proposal said it needed to be amended for clarity and fairness. The sponsor, Democratic Sen. Joe Cervantes of Las Cruces, said one section should be removed altogether. It grants immunity from civil or criminal liability to those making the allegations.
But instead of attempting to fix the bill’s deficiencies, the Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 4-3 to send it unchanged to the Judiciary Committee.
Democratic Sens. Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos, Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces, and Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, both of Albuquerque, moved the bill ahead. Republicans cast the dissenting votes.
Passing SB 5 without fixing it meant passing the buck. But Democrats who control the Public Affairs Committee decided Cervantes and the other lawyers on the judiciary panel could do the necessary work to improve the bill by next week.
New Mexico has 33 sheriffs, 30 of whom oppose this bill. They complain it could spark violence, that it allows for illegal seizure of property and that it denies due process to the accused.
“Essentially you are being deprived of your property rights under the Constitution for something somebody says you might do,” said Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton, a Republican.
He ridiculed Cervantes’ bill as wrongheaded, likening it to towing all the cars of people parked at a saloon and then requiring them to prove their sobriety before they can get back their property.
Hamilton said the state already has a good law on the books for preventing a mentally unstable person from committing suicide or going on a killing spree with a firearm.
His favors Section 43-1-10, a statute that under certain conditions provides for emergency care and a mental health evaluation of someone who might be unstable and potentially violent.
Much like a sporting event, the seats of the Senate gallery were jammed with people who had a rooting interest in the debate.
The sheriffs and plenty of civilians who called Cervantes’ bill unconstitutional sat on one side. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public safety team, several students and members of Moms Demand Action filled the other.
Vanessa Alarid, a lobbyist, said she spoke in favor of the bill as the brokenhearted cousin of a woman who took her own life with a gun.
Alarid said she had no legal means of helping her suicidal relative. SB 5, she said, would have given her a chance to keep alive someone who was as close to her as a sibling.
Another young woman read the names of the 17 teenagers shot dead at a high school in Parkland, Fla., by a former student. She told of the Florida Legislature then approving a law similar to the one New Mexico senators have before them, an action “17 lives too late.”
New Mexico’s existing law has the teeth to prevent those sorts of tragedies.
Section 43-1-10 allows for a peace officer to “detain and transport a person for emergency mental health evaluation and care” without a court order if the officer has reason to believe a suicide attempt had been made. This law probably would have covered Alarid’s cousin.
Another part of the New Mexico statute allows for detention of someone who is subject to lawful arrest. This could apply to someone who has made threats, such as the shooter in the Florida murders.
Cervantes said in an interview after the hearing he hopes the sheriffs will offer constructive ideas to make his bill better.
He said he presented the same bill intact that failed last year as a starting point.
Asked why neither he nor the Public Affairs Committee tried to amend the bill, he said: “We thought long and hard about it, and decided the place for the work would be between this committee and judiciary,” the panel he chairs.
The sheriffs say SB 5 is too full of holes to be saved.
For instance, someone whose guns are seized can attempt to schedule a court hearing in 15 days. Hamilton said that leaves two weeks without any mental health care for someone who’s supposedly dangerous and able to obtain more guns.
Other sheriffs said violence has occurred in states when law-abiding gun owners were surprised by police trying to take guns or search their property without justification.
New Mexico’s legislative session is only 30 days this year. Yet Democrats went through a hearing without refining a bill that they admit needs an editor.
It’s a sure bet the sheriffs won’t volunteer for the job. They hope to swing enough Democrats to their side to kill the bill.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.