SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Two candidates for governor of New Mexico are offering starkly different visions on issues of gun control and public safety in a state where the Democrat-led Legislature has been reticent to approve major restrictions on firearms.
An Associated Press review of all firearms-related legislation by states this year shows largely predictable and partisan patterns, with exceptions such as Florida and Vermont where Republican governors signed sweeping legislation.
New Mexico lawmakers increased the penalty for illegal gun possession by violent felons and set aside about $40 million for school safety improvements in coming years.
Republican candidate Steve Pearce, an outspoken defender of the right to bear arms as a member of Congress, has highlighted the need to enforce existing gun regulations and hold law enforcement officials accountable in emergencies, while offering to help schools devise safety precautions that could include armed personnel with advanced training. He accuses his opponent of having of an extreme gun-control agenda.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, who says she's never purchased a gun, has pledged support for a state-wide ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
The former state Health Department secretary wants to expand background checks to more gun sales, deny firearms to perpetrators of domestic abuse, add a child-access prevention law and approve a "red flag law" that allows police or relatives to seek court orders to seize guns from people who are showing signs of violence.
Gun reforms confront an uncertain future in the state with a strong culture of gun ownership across vast rural expanses far removed from the reassurance off law enforcement patrols. Concerns about urban crime in Albuquerque also are weighing heavily in fall campaigning for governor and legislative seats.
"We do have Democrats that don't vote for gun violence prevention laws," said Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans Against Gun Violence. "I'm hoping that will change."
One new gun law emerged for approval this year from the Legislature, which ended its annual session the morning after the Valentine's Day slaughter at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
A proposal was abandoned without discussion to ban bump stocks, the rapid-trigger devices that a gunman used as he shot hundreds of people at the music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, in October 2017.
Lawmakers wrestled with responses to New Mexico's own school tragedy — two students were shot to death at Aztec High School in December of last year by a 21-year-old gunman who killed himself, ultimately setting aside money to fund school safety improvement for several years.
During two terms in office, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has vetoed background checks for gun-show purchases and a proposed ban on gun possession by people under permanent protective orders for domestic violence.
Her departure in January may re-kindle dormant proposals and already has thrust New Mexico back a proxy battle between national groups on gun issues.
Everytown for Gun Safety, the advocacy group for gun restrictions founded by former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has endorsed Lujan Grisham, and an affiliated political committee is promising to spend $10 million to influence midterm elections in New Mexico and three other states.
The National Rifle Association gun-rights and -industry group renewed Pearce's "A'' rating earlier this month and endorsed his campaign for governor. Chris Cox, chairman of the group's Political Victory Fund, cited Pearce's commitment to protecting the U.S. firearms industry from legal liability and to federal reciprocity legislation to make states recognize concealed handgun permits from other states.
"Your opposition to bans on commonly used firearms and ammunition stands in stark contrast to your opponent," Cox told Pearce in a letter.
Pearce, who holds his own concealed carry permit, is asserting that new restrictions on access to firearms would not necessarily improve safety or prevent violence in many situations.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, the Albuquerque Democrat who co-sponsored this year's new gun law, said narrowly tailored gun legislation can succeed in New Mexico.
Another bill from Ivey-Soto in 2017 would have ended open carry of firearms in Statehouse building, where permitted concealed weapons also are allowed and entrances have no formal security screening. It died on the House floor.
The bill had a simple aim: "In the building where people come to debate very emotionally charged issues, that we would prefer that you would not be brandishing," he said.