Sheriff in New Mexico’s most populous county rejects governor’s gun ban, calling it unconstitutional

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Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen calls New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s order suspending the carrying of firearms in the state’s most populous metropolitan area unconstitutional during a news conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. Allen is among the other municipal law enforcement officials who have said they will not enforce the Democratic governor’s order. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

The sheriff in New Mexico’s largest metro area vowed Monday not to enforce an emergency order by the governor to temporarily suspend the right to carry firearms in public in and around the city of Albuquerque.

“It’s unconstitutional, so there’s no way we can enforce that order,” Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen said during a news conference. “This ban does nothing to curb gun violence.”

Reaction has been swift after Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the order Friday, telling reporters that she expected legal challenges and that state police would handle enforcement.

“I welcome the debate and fight about how to make New Mexicans safer,” she said, while also acknowledging that criminals surely would ignore her order.

Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman, a Democratic party leader who was appointed by Lujan Grisham, joined Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Police Chief Harold Medina saying they too would not enforce it. A gun rights group filed a federal lawsuit within 24 hours, seeking an immediate court order to block the order from taking effect.

Republican state lawmakers also have proposed initiating impeachment proceedings against the governor, a move that would require buy-in from the Democrats who control the state Legislature.

“My constituents have reached out to me in droves, emailing and texting me that this is insane, this is horrifying, this is unconstitutional,” said Republican state Rep. John Block of Alamogordo, who represents a conservative stronghold in southern New Mexico.

He said an article of impeachment is being drafted by legal counsel. Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman, began a second term in January and can’t run again immediately for a third consecutive term.

The ACLU voiced its own objections to the governor’s response to gun violence, expressing fear that it could lead to overzealous policing and infringe on privacy.

“This kind of approach leads to the over-policing of our communities, racial profiling, and increased misery in the lives of already marginalized people,” said Lalita Moskowitz, litigation manager for the ACLU of New Mexico. “The governor should be following evidence-based solutions such as meaningful diversion and violence intervention programs and addressing the root causes of violence.”

New Mexico was among five states with the highest rates of gun killings in 2021, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center based death-certificate data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It found 11.7 killings per 100,000 people in New Mexico, just below Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia.

Violent crime has become especially pronounced in New Mexico’s largest metro area, where homicides set a record in 2022 with 120 people killed, according to Albuquerque police data.

The pace appears to be slowing this year overall, with 76 victims as of Sept. 8, Albuquerque police reported. Firearms accounted for the vast majority of violent crimes at 83 percent.

Overall, homicides in the U.S. spiked in 2020, a rise that came amid the huge social disruption and upended support systems during the COVID-19 pandemic and defied easy explanation. Since then, FBI crime data has pointed to violent crime beginning to level out but remaining above pre-pandemic levels.

Top Democratic legislators in the state Senate had no immediate comment Monday on the temporary gun restrictions or prospects for impeachment proceedings.

The top Republican in the New Mexico Senate, Greg Baca of Belen, denounced the order as an infringement on the gun rights of law-abiding citizens. Dan Lewis, who serves on the nonpartisan Albuquerque City Council, called it unconstitutional.

The head of the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association, Randy Kozuch, issued a statement on Sunday calling the order a “shocking” act of “administrative fiat” that undermined “the fundamental rights of law-abiding New Mexicans.” Gun-toting protesters held a peaceful rally in Albuquerque’s Old Town area.

Allen on Monday alluded again to concerns he expressed in a statement late Friday about putting deputies at risk if they sought to arrest people with guns.

“I do not want to have political violence towards my deputies or here in Bernalillo County,” he said. “I have enough violence here.”

Lujan Grisham said she was compelled to issue her order following recent shootings, including the death of an 11-year-old boy outside a minor league baseball stadium last week, the gunfire death of a 5-year-old girl who was asleep in a motor home, and an August shooting death in Taos County of a 13-year-old girl.

The firearms suspension was issued as an emergency public health order, reminiscent of the much-protested public health orders she continually renewed throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor said the gun ban would apply for 30 days to open and concealed carry in most public places and tied it to a threshold for violent crime rates currently only met in metropolitan Albuquerque. Police and licensed security guards are exempt.

Violators could face civil penalties and a fine of up to $5,000, gubernatorial spokeswoman Caroline Sweeney said. Under the order, residents still could transport guns to some private locations, such as a gun range or gun store, provided the firearm has a trigger lock, a container or mechanism making it impossible to discharge.

Allen said the governor, who was meeting with top law enforcement officials on Friday, sprung on them news of her plan just moments before her news conference. He said he was both shocked and irritated, after law enforcement officials had warned the governor not to go through with it.

“I have to turn my irritation and anger into solutions,” the sheriff said, indicating that he would, among other things, push state lawmakers to call for a special session to address the violence in Albuquerque.

Across the U.S., about 79% of killings in 2020 involved a firearm, the highest percentage in at least 50 years, according to the Pew Research Center.

cross-section of U.S. cities showed declines in homicides this year, according to a July report from the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice. That analysis of 30 cities showed uneven results and did not include Albuquerque.

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.