ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Since 1980, firearms were used in over 3,200 homicides across New Mexico, data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shows. Guns are used to commit homicide about twice as often as any other weapon.

Despite the statistics, a recent survey of Albuquerque Police Department union members shows that out of 421 Albuquerque police officers, only one believes that guns are the main contributing factor to Albuquerque’s growing crime problem. That’s according to the 2021 Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association survey.

Data Reporting

Miranda Viscoli, the co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, on the other hand, calls New Mexico’s gun violence issue “the other pandemic.” It’s a problem that is “destroying our communities every single day,” she feels, claiming that “we are awash in firearms.”

So exactly how many guns are in New Mexico?

New Mexico doesn’t require a permit to purchase guns, nor does it require firearm owners to be licensed or register their guns. As a result, there’s no precise count of firearms in the state. Still, several data sources can be used to estimate New Mexico’s firearm count.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) does require that firearm owners register certain firearms. Shotguns with barrels shorter than 18 inches and rifles with barrels less than 16 inches are counted — called “NFA” firearms. Many pistols, and most sporting firearms, however, are not included in the count.

The most recent ATF counts show that New Mexico is no more flush with “NFA” firearms than our neighboring states, when you account for population. In fact, New Mexico is roughly on-par with Colorado at about 260 ATF-registered “NFA” firearms per 100,000 people. Texas has about 310 registered “NFA” firearms per 100,000 people. Arizona has close to 400.

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Although ATF only tracks a few types of firearms, the data gives some insight into gun ownership. When it comes to short-barreled rifles and short-barreled shotguns, New Mexico has a slightly lower ownership rate than neighboring states. Data from ATF.

Another way to estimate how many guns are in New Mexico is by counting firearm sales. And with the pandemic, firearm sales have risen — both nationally and in New Mexico.

While there’s no way to get the exact number of firearms sold, the FBI publishes the number of background checks submitted during each legal gun purchase from a firearms dealer. The counts don’t exactly match the number of guns sold, as some guns are sold without background checks and some checks may not lead to a gun purchase. Still, background checks provide a rough estimate of gun purchases.

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Firearm sale background checks tend to spike in winter. But after adjusting for this seasonal pattern, there’s a clear increase in background checks coinciding with the pandemic. Data from the FBI NICS.

FBI background checks, however, account for only legally-sold guns, not guns gifted by family members or stolen guns. To get a better estimate of firearms, the RAND Corporation, an international non-profit research organization, combined several data sources to estimate firearm ownership. They use firearm-related suicide reports, counts of hunting licenses, background checks, and the number of Guns and Ammo magazine subscriptions to come up with estimates from 1980 to 2016.

According to RAND Corporation estimates, New Mexico was historically in the middle of the pack in terms of the percent of adults living in a household with a firearm. Their most recent estimate, from 2016, showed that about 36% of New Mexico’s adults lived with a firearm. Montana, Wyoming, and West Virginia topped the list, with 60% to 65% of adults living with a firearm. Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Jersey were at the bottom, with fewer than 10% of adults living with a firearm.

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Over the last few decades, New Mexico’s per-capita adult gun ownership has been above the national average. But in recent years, the state’s percentage of adults living with firearms in the household has been on-par with the national average, according to estimates from the RAND Corporation.

There are many ways to estimate gun ownership rates. The to create these estimates, the RAND Corporation used a statistical model that includes multiple sources, such as suicide data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hunting license counts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of subscriptions to Guns & Ammo magazine, and a count of background checks.

“I do think we have a bit of a gun culture here,” Christopher Lyons, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, says. “And a lot of these homicides [in New Mexico] are driven by firearm violence.” Lyons points to rhetoric by politicians such as former Democratic governor Bill Richardson as evidence of New Mexico’s gun culture.

Richardson spoke publicly about the connection between guns and New Mexico’s western identity: “I’m a Westerner. The 2nd Amendment is precious in the West,” he argued in the 2007 Democratic primary debate in South Carolina.

Do more guns lead to more gun violence?

Data shows that for years, New Mexico was roughly on-par with national rates of death by firearm-related assault. But in 2018 and 2019, the most recently available data, New Mexico’s firearm death rate outpaced the national average. In 2019, New Mexico had 7.5 firearm-related assault deaths per 100,000 people, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. The national average was close to half that, at 4.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

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Cause of death data shows that New Mexico’s firearm death rate has been outpacing the national average. Data from CDC.

New Mexico also ranks above average in terms of nonfatal firearm injuries. An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun violence prevention organization, places New Mexico in the top 10 states for nonfatal firearm injuries, based on data from 2017. They calculate a rate of 42.1 firearm injuries per 100,000 people based on the data. The national average is 26 injuries per 100,000 people, their data shows.

Albuquerque follows a similar trend. A 2018 report from the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) showed that the number of non-fatal shootings in the city increased between 2016 and 2018. So far this year, APD has reported only 287 non-fatal shootings in the city, but records from the University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) show that the number of people seeking treatment for gunshot wounds has risen since 2017.

KRQE News 13 reported on the rise in shooting victims this October. The most recent data from UNMH shows that there’s been a 37% increase in the number of patients seen for gunshot wounds over the last three years.

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Firearm injuries seen at UNMH have increased by 37% in the last three years. This includes assault-related injuries, suicide attempts, and accidents. Data from UNMH.

“The vast majority of firearm injuries that present to the hospital are assault-related,” says Dr. Richard Miskimins, the associate trauma medical director at UNMH. The hospital also sees suicide attempts, but those are often fatal, he explains, so they make up a minority of the injuries doctors are able to successfully treat.

“It’s an emotionally draining issue,” Miskimins says. “The number of times that you see a young person that’s shot and killed is not infrequent. In my average service week, at least one or two people will die. We see a lot of death and a lot of life-changing events, and it’s something that takes its toll for sure.”

Miskimins has been working as a trauma surgeon at UNMH for over three years. In that time, he’s seen a rise in injuries and deaths related to gun violence. And he says he doesn’t just see rough criminals coming in for treatment, either.

“I see a lot of people that you and I would consider very average-walk-of-life individuals. We see people get shot in road rage accidents, we see kids shot at schools. We see people shot in home invasions.”

He estimates that about 40% of the assault injuries he sees are career criminals or other people that tend to be considered “rough” criminals. But about half of the injuries, he estimates, are “average people.”

“There have been many times that I’ve seen someone sit on our table after we’ve failed to save their life and then [we] have to go and talk to the family and you find out that they’re 17 or cut someone off in traffic and they flipped them off and the person shot them,” Miskimins says. “And you’re like, ‘Wow, that could be anybody.'”

Miskimins says the number of firearm-related injuries doesn’t have to be so high. He’s doubtful that there will ever be zero gun injuries at the hospital, but he says there are evidence-based solutions to decrease both suicides and assaults. One example he gives is the effectiveness of trigger locks.

“Everyone kind of thinks about these as like, ‘Oh, my little three-year-old kids rolling around and they find my gun and then they pull the trigger.’ But I’ve never seen that. None of my partners have ever seen that,” he says. “What it actually does is prevent your like teenage son or daughter — who just broke up with their significant other and is super upset — from going and finding your gun and committing suicide.”

And to prevent assault, he points out that New Mexico does have laws on the books intended to keep guns out of the hands of a key group of offenders: domestic abusers. A 2019 relinquishment law under the Family Violence Protection Act, allows courts to require certain domestic offenders to hand over their guns to law enforcement. But Miskimins says the laws need better enforcement.

“We have a lot of resources at the state [level] already that are there, but they need to be worked on and enforced,” he says. “And I think that if those were done, we would see a substantial decrease in our firearm death rate in the state.”