ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Critics said it was a pointless, unenforceable law and supporters said it would keep New Mexicans safer. The law requiring background checks on private gun sales has been in place for more than a year now. It makes it a misdemeanor to sell a gun without getting a background check on the buyer, with the exception of immediate family members and law enforcement.

“It’s really just to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” said Rep. Debbie Sarinana (D-Albuquerque).

In the first year since that law went into effect on July 1, 2019, court records show that no one was charged with violating the law. “We spent a lot of time, a lot of resources and a lot of money trying to enact this law that’s done absolutely nothing,” said Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace.

As the president of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, Sheriff Mace has been an outspoken opponent of the legislation since lawmakers proposed it in the Roundhouse. Still, when she signed it into law, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham seemed confident that even sheriffs who opposed it would get on board.

(Click image above to read the full bill)
Democratic Senators Peter Wirth & Richard Martinez sponsored Senate Bill 8. It barely passed in the Senate, with some Democrats jumping party lines, for a vote of 22 to 20.

“They will enforce this law,” she said. “They will do their job and duty.” However, one year later, Sheriff Mace still told KRQE News 13, “We’re not enforcing it.”

The only law enforcement agency in the state speaking publicly about actively enforcing it is the Albuquerque Police Department. “We want that message to get out to felons that if you try, you could be getting a phone call from detectives,” APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos told KRQE in January.

APD said it has done two sting operations, acting as potential buyers and reaching out to private gun sellers to see if they will require a background check or not. Out of 50 people, they say, they warned roughly ten about the law during the first operation. Then, just two or three during the second operation.

APD has seen firsthand what can happen when nothing stands in the way of a convicted felon buying a gun online. That is how Davon Lymon got his hands on one before background checks were required. Lymon used that gun to kill APD Ofc. Daniel Webster during a traffic stop in 2015.

“This isn’t going to solve every instance of guns getting in the wrong hands, but if we can just prevent, you know, one or two, we want to keep these guns out of the wrong hands,” Gallegos said about APD’s sting operations.

Background checks in New Mexico are clearly on the rise, but it is unclear whether that is specifically as a result of the new law. The data shows a surge after the coronavirus outbreak hit New Mexico, but it also shows the numbers were climbing even in the eight months before that. Of course, those are the people following the rules.

To do sting operations to catch people breaking the law is just not feasible, Sheriff Mace said. “I have limited resources, limited staff, limited manpower. That’s not something that I can, that I’m gonna focus a whole lot of time on, is trying to bait people into a private transfer,” he explained. “There’s a lot of other things that are going on that are more important that we could be dealing with.”

News 13 asked Democratic Rep. Debbie Sariñana of Albuquerque about this. She sponsored the House version of the bill for background checks. “I believe it does save lives. I believe it depends on the department and the leadership in that department, how much this law is enforced,” she said.

She said APD is doing a great job for example. “They are working with us,” Rep. Sariñana said. “I’m hoping other ones will come along.”

APD said the department was going to move from the educational phase of giving out warnings into the enforcement phase, when the pandemic hit. So, that is on hold for now.

KRQE News 13 reached out to the governor’s office to request an interview. They emailed the following statement:

Sheriffs are not legislative or judicial bodies. Their role is law enforcement – they don’t get to decide to not do so because they don’t like it. The data is abundantly clear that background checks reduce the rate of women killed by an intimate partner, reduce suicide rates, and reduce the rate of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, which is why the governor stands by this common-sense act of good governance and public safety. The governor is grateful to the sheriffs and other law enforcement officials who understand that background checks are a tool for violence prevention and support their implementation. One would think that public safety officials, who see firsthand the terrible results of such horrific shootings and acts of violence, would want to pursue every possible avenue to prevent such awful crimes from occurring – what does it say about those who do not?

I’ll add, to your saying that ‘no one has been charged under the law’ – I don’t see how that’s a metric as the intent of the law is to require additional background checks, closing those loopholes.

Perhaps if some sheriff’s offices spent a little less time blatantly flouting critical public health policies, they would be more able to invest their time in protecting their communities from gun violence. Although perhaps I shouldn’t hold my breath in thinking that they would want to take action to protect their communities, given that so many of them apparently have no interest in protecting the public from a deadly pandemic.

Nora Meyers Sackett, Press Secretary

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