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FYI for all New Mexicans.

Bill for expanded background checks for gun buyers dies in committee News/012813XGRGUNS

Following a four-and-a-half hour debate Monday, a House committee effectively killed a proposed law that would require the state Department of Public Safety to perform background checks on people buying firearms at gun shows or in private transactions.

House Bill 77, sponsored by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, was introduced in response to last month’s shooting rampage at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Currently, only those who buy weapons from licensed firearms dealers have to undergo background checks.

The House Judiciary Committee split 8 to 8. Because the bill wasn’t backed by a majority, it failed. All Republicans on the committee plus Democratic Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, voted against the measure.

The bill could be brought up again if a member who voted against it changes his or her mind.

The bill was the first major controversial bill to be considered by this year’s Legislature.

So many people showed up to attend the hearing that the meeting was moved from the regular committee room to the House Chambers.

Early in the hearing, several people in the House gallery jeered Garcia when he mistakenly said that federal law requires background checks only for people who buy handguns from licensed dealers. At least one person angrily yelled, “Lie!”

Committee chairman Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, threatened to have sergeants at arms remove anyone causing any further disturbance. No other such outbursts occurred.

The issue of expanding background checks is expected to be taken up in Congress this year as part of President Obama’s gun control package.

Opponents and supporters of the bill each got an hour to testify. Those testifying on both sides voiced mostly familiar arguments that have been aired for decades around the country in the gun control debate.

Those against the bill argued that imposing background checks for gun buyers at gun shows would be burdensome on law-abiding gun owners, ineffective in preventing violent crime and unconstitutional.

Steve Aikens, a Clovis firearms instructor, called the bill “a knee-jerk reaction” to gun-related tragedies such as the Newtown killings and argued the bill would be “unenforceable.”

Tara Mica, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, told the committee that on a federal level, the government has been ineffective in enforcing the existing background check law. Only a fraction of people who illegally submit false information on background check forms are ever prosecuted, she said.

She also argued against imposing fees for background checks. (Under the bill, the fee would have been $35 for sales at a gun show and $25 for other private transactions.) “If it’s such a compelling public safety issue, why shouldn’t the state pay for it?” Mica said.

David Stevens, a Roswell lawyer, noted legislators swore to uphold the Constitution. He said he told committee members who supported the bill they would be violating the Constitution “and you will be held accountable.”

The state Attorney General’s Office in a fiscal impact report said the bill would pass constitutional muster. But the office suggested a total of 11 amendments to the bill to make sure it complies with existing federal and state law. Some of those concerns were taken care of in an amendment introduced by Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. The amendment took out all references to establishing a registry and individual transaction numbers.

Those in favor of the bill said that the gun-show loophole allows too many guns into the hands of criminals and the mentally ill and that expanding background checks is a common-sense approach that would not be an infringement on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

Santa Fe Mayor David Coss called the bill “a very common sense public safety agenda.”

Steve Lipscomb of Santa Fe disputed several bill opponents’ argument that criminals can’t be stopped from getting guns, so the bill shouldn’t be passed. “Criminals are going to get guns anyway, so we shouldn’t pass the law. Criminals are going to commit crimes anyway so we shouldn’t pass any laws,” he said. “That would apply to every law.”

The Rev. Talitha Arnold of the United Church of Santa Fe said that her support of the bill isn’t a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“I’ve spent 33 years standing with grieving families,” she said. She said HB 77 could slow down people who would use guns to commit suicide.

Under the bill, the state Department of Public Safety would be responsible for conducting the background checks. Failure to conduct background checks would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The department would have to set up and maintain a telephone number that would be operational seven days a week, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., to respond to inquiries for background checks.

A fiscal impact report said the bill would cost the state about $720,000 a year to manage plus another $125,000 in nonrecurring start-up costs.
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