Whatever happens in the next weeks or months regarding the nation’s gun laws, one thing is certain: One important path to change goes through Congress. The lawmakers there, often beholden to big-dollar donations from the gun lobbies, have been reluctant to pass any sort of gun control legislation.
Citizens will have to demand change in the wake of a massacre of 20 children at a Connecticut school — and given the deep-red nature of some congressional districts, lobbying for sensible changes to federal gun laws is an uphill climb. After all, for many Republican lawmakers, there is no reason to shift positions, and in the House of Representatives, there might be enough of them to stop even the best gun safety law. And it’s not just Republicans who have been reluctant to take on the gun industry and its lobbying agent, the National Rifle Association. New Mexicans who want Congress to reinstitute a meaningful ban on assault weapons — just one example of possible change — must start now to ensure our delegation listens to the their wishes.
That means going straight to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and Sen.-elect Martin Heinrich, and U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Steve Pearce and Rep.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham and asking for the kind of legislation citizens believe will make the country safer. As a Western state where rural traditions are strong, including gun owning and hunting, favoring rights for gun owners has been a popular stance in our state. Many of our elected officials also hunt and shoot guns for recreation. Right now, neither Udall nor Heinrich has backed an assault-weapons ban, one of the laws being discussed as a first step in gaining control over the nation’s gun violence. However, in light of the horrific shootings in Connecticut, it appears the delegation is open to persuasion. Voters must shout louder than the NRA and other gun lobbies for the persuasion to work.
At the state and local level, laws can be changed to make citizens safer. Gov. Susana Martinez, a former district attorney who has a concealed-carry permit, is focusing on mental health as one way to stop mass shootings. While we agree that the mentally ill need better treatment, we do not want to see mental-health issues divert us from the need to change gun laws. At the state level, legislators could focus on better training for gun owners and public safety campaigns that teach how to store guns safely. The mass killings garner headlines, to be sure, but it is the incremental deaths — a child finding a gun under the seat, or a depressed teen grabbing his dad’s shotgun, or a gun stolen in a burglary and then used to shoot a store clerk — that we have the best opportunity of reducing through smart, targeted laws.
At the city level, Councilor Patti Bushee has been talking about an ordinance to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in Santa Fe — we don’t think that will be legal under state law. However, the city could, as Mayor David Coss has suggested, buy back guns to reduce the number of weapons in circulation. That’s something the city and Santa Fe County could do together. City Attorney Geno Zamora, too, could be asked to see what other laws might work at a local level. Can Santa Fe pass a local ordinance to require gun buyers to receive training, both on how to shoot a gun and how to store it? Gun owners could face penalties for failing to secure their weapons properly. Can Santa Fe pass a local tax on ammunition (to help pay for buybacks) and require trigger locks and gun safes? This would work better at a statewide level, but we are not sure, given Gov. Martinez’s views, that sensible changes will happen at the Legislature and be signed into law.
Gun safety — as opposed to gun control — must be the focus as the nation moves forward. For too long, the focus has been on the “rights” of gun owners. We need to refocus on the “responsibilities” of gun owners — to secure their weapons, to use them safely and to ensure that innocent people stop being caught in the crossfire.