NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – With the governor’s recent public health order on gun violence, New Mexico is at the center of a discussion over firearms deaths – and gun ownership rights. Now, in the New Mexico Supreme Court, the governor has filed a response to opponents, arguing that the numbers show gun violence is a public health issue. But what is she citing?

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Patrick Allen submitted a document citing a range of studies and reports related to firearms and health. Overall, they’re trying to make the case that data shows the state has a gun violence “epidemic.” There is some data supporting that idea, but the data is far from perfect, and most of it is at least a few years out of date.

When it comes to gun violence, the governor points out that in 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counted 48,830 deaths from gun-related injuries across the U.S. What she doesn’t clarify is that number includes suicides, as reported by the Pew Research Center. Gun-related murders, both Pew and the governor note, have increased in the U.S. But multiple times, the governor does not separate suicides from homicides and murders when discussing the statistics.

For non-suicides, the CDC counted 20,958 gun deaths from assault by firearm discharge (handguns, rifles, shotguns, and others) in the U.S. in 2021. They counted 233 gun assault deaths in New Mexico in 2021 – which represents 0.95% of all deaths that year in the state. (See notes at end of story for details.)

CDC data (as presented by the Pew Research Center) shows both gun-related suicides and murders have increased nationwide to 2021. In New Mexico, gun assault deaths made up about 0.95% of all deaths that year. Provisional data from 2022 shows a similar number.

Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University says we can expect around 45,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. this year, but again more than half of that number is represented by suicide. “In many cases, it’s a preventable cause of death,” Khubchandani says. “Why are people living in so much distress that they have to kill themselves to the extent that we now rank the highest in the industrialized nations for gun suicide, gun homicide, child gun deaths?” Khubchandani says now is the time to be talking about guns from a public health perspective, something the governor is doing with her latest filing.

In her court filing, the governor notes that gun violence has not only been increasing but has been hitting New Mexico’s youth particularly hard. “Gun violence was the leading cause of death among children and teens ages 1-19 years from 2016 to 2022,” her filing in court says. She’s citing a presentation to lawmakers by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That report says the state’s gun death rate is “partly due to the state’s limited gun violence prevention laws.” KRQE News 13 reported on the more than 100 gun control bills the state’s politicians have considered in the last 14 years – as of our 2021 report, only 11 of those bills had been turned into laws, and some of the laws haven’t always been fully enforced.

“The challenge is that states do not want to implement those policies,” Khubchandani says. He points to the recent challenges in getting the Bennie’s Bill passed in the legislature. That bill aimed to criminalize adults who negligently allow firearms to fall into the hands of a child who misuses the weapon. It passed into law, but not before significant pushback from some lawmakers.

The Johns Hopkins report cited by the governor in her latest court filing also notes that “while narratives around gun violence often focus on cities, both rural and urban communities in New Mexico are impacted by gun violence.” Indeed, the governor’s initial public health order on addressing gun violence focused more critically on the Albuquerque metro than many rural portions of the state.

CDC data from 2021 shows that the per-population gun-related assault deaths were highest in Rio Arriba County, Sierra County, and Socorro County.

CDC and Census data suggests gun violence may be a larger problem – per capita – in rural communities.

Khubchandani says his research shows that rural areas are often underlooked. “Albuquerque is a bigger town, bigger city, there’s a lot of local media channels [there],” Khubchandani says. “But in my last few studies, we have found that gun-related suicides are the biggest problem in rural America. There’s no mental health care there. There’s easy access to guns. There’s little social support.”

Gun violence is a complex issue, and Khubchandani says that no matter what policies are put in place via a public health order from the governor, solving the issue of gun violence isn’t going to be easy.

“I think it takes decades,” Khubchandani says. He says the political debates surrounding guns and the sheer number of guns in the community mean that it will likely take time for policies to have an impact. On top of that, underlying issues like poverty and limited mental health care in New Mexico, which he says contribute to gun violence, may take years to improve. But, the good news, he says, is that people are now talking about guns and thinking about the role they play in public health.

“I think what the governor did has both good and bad sides. The good side that I’m happy about is that there’s now a conversation on this topic,” Khubchandani says. In his view the bad side is that with all the political pushback, the order isn’t the end-all-be-all for gun violence, he says. “We have to now go back to people, have a discussion with them, and ask them what they would prefer to be able to continue to reduce the gun deaths in New Mexico.”

*Data Notes: CDC death statistics reported are for single cause-of-death instances. Death certificates that include multiple causes of death may not be included.