SANTA FE – Firearms are being banned at the New Mexico state Capitol building with few exceptions starting in early December, under rule changes approved Monday by leading Democratic lawmakers.
The changes reverse a live-and-let-live approach toward guns in the Statehouse that has endured for more than a century.
Until now, New Mexico has allowed the open and concealed carry of firearms in the building with no systematic screening for weapons at entrances, which are guarded by State Police when the Legislature is in session. Limited gun restrictions were put in place in recent years during the State of the State address and contentious hearings on gun bills.
The new prohibition on deadly weapons – also including various knives, brass knuckles and sharpened canes – takes effect Dec. 6, when legislators are scheduled to convene for political redistricting.
Democratic state Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup said the changes were a necessary response to new and unpredictable security threats.
“We need to tighten down the Capitol,” said Muñoz, acknowledging that he has a concealed carry license. “It is the way the world is making us do things now.”
The gun ban, drafted by Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, applies to most people, including legislators and staff members inside the Statehouse and adjoining annex offices. The new restrictions don’t apply to certified law enforcement officers and uniformed armed service personnel, and additional exceptions can be granted by the House speaker and Senate president, positions currently held by Democrats.
Republican lawmakers said the gun ban would infringe on a bedrock state constitutional right to bear arms – that some see as form of free expression in itself – and called for a more thorough public debate and vetting.
The changes were approved by an 8-5 vote of a panel of leading lawmakers who oversee administrative, legal and security issues at the Legislature, with Republicans voting in unison against the changes.
State House minority leader James Townsend of Aztec said the proposal would unfairly deny legislators and staff members the ability to defend themselves, compromising security in the process.
“We’re not talking about Capitol security, we’re talking about banning firearms,” he said.
Senate majority leader Wirth, author of the new rules, acknowledged that he has felt frightened and intimidated by people carrying firearms inside the Capitol – and said his constituents have steered away from legislative hearings because of people openly carrying guns.
“There are places where firearms just shouldn’t be part of the process and they shouldn’t be part of free speech, and the Roundhouse is one of them,” said Wirth, using a common nickname for the circular Capitol building. “Concealed carry is certainly not going to happen in the courthouse. ... There just are places where, as a policy decision, we make the decision that firearms are not in the mix.”
Wirth said the Legislature is on firm legal ground in restricting firearms, noting that the state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to robust security precautions in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and undisclosed security threats to the state Capitol in Santa Fe.
The state Capitol was cordoned off early this year by fencing, concrete barricades and military personnel in response to undisclosed threats.