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Federal court allows Albuquerque gun ban to stand while lawsuits proceed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last month, New Mexico's Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, issued an emergency order for the Albuquerque area.

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MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: We have far too many crimes involving firearms. We are suspending open and concealed carry.

INSKEEP: Suspending open and concealed carry. Amid criticism, she narrowed that order to cover only playgrounds and parks. Last week, a federal court allowed that rule to stand while lawsuits proceed. NPR's Martin Kaste went to Albuquerque to learn what's behind the governor's order.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Albuquerque is a Western town, and guns are normal here, so normal, in fact, that the city runs something called Shooting Range Park.

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KASTE: This is a public gun range specifically exempted from the governor's ban on guns in parks. And even on weekday afternoons, it can be busy here.

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KASTE: You'll have a hard time finding supporters of the gun ban here. Johnny Atencio has his rifle, and he's practicing for elk season.

JOHNNY ATENCIO: I don't feel I should have to follow a law that would put me in danger because criminals out on the streets have got guns. And, you know, why shouldn't I?

KASTE: Gun violence has been on the rise in Albuquerque, especially over the last decade.

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KASTE: In another park, this one with a playground, Benjamin Baker recalls an incident that he witnessed right here in July.

BENJAMIN BAKER: I had my kid here at football practice. He's 12. People decided to come have a rolling gun and stabbing battle within feet of where he was practicing. And it caused a person to be shot. And the ages of those folks were 13, 14 and 15.

KASTE: Baker is adviser to the governor on public safety. He's also a former cop. And he's convinced that something has changed in the local gun culture. While he's always thought of guns as tools...

BAKER: I don't believe anymore that that's the opinion of a really large majority of folks. They're viewed as something different. There's something more sexy about them. It's not a tool.

KASTE: Police here say kids are especially attracted to guns, often stolen from cars or homes or just borrowed from negligent parents. The state just passed a new law earlier this year, making it possible to criminally prosecute adults who allow their guns to fall into the hands of kids who then use them in crimes. But that kind of gun safety law may now be harder to pass, given the anger generated by the governor's gun ban.

ZAC FORT: It really kind of stacks the deck a little bit on other things that she may try to do because it's going to be like, well, we have zero trust.

KASTE: Zac Fort is with the New Mexico Shooting Sports Association. He's also a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the band's constitutionality.

FORT: It's going to make it harder to pass gun control in New Mexico just because just how far she tried to go through executive order. And you saw so many people come out against it.

KASTE: Local law enforcement leaders have also distanced themselves from the ban, saying they're not about to enforce it. But they have embraced other aspects of the governor's emergency order, such as more state money for anti-crime efforts. In a big room at the sheriff's department downtown, more than 20 officers are gearing up for the evening.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: All right, everybody. Thank you, everybody, for being here. This is day two of our Operation Clean Sweep warrant roundup.

KASTE: This warrant roundup, as they call it, means hunting down people with open criminal warrants. Sheriff John Allen says if they also find illegal guns, the state helps to pay for the overtime.

JOHN ALLEN: This is all they're doing. They're not subject to calls for service. This is what they focus on for the evening. It's been to embed it in our community with gun violence and in felons with warrants that aren't being picked up for too long. So we're sending a message and making sure we're getting them in jail.

KASTE: And the governor's office is playing up this increased enforcement. It even has an online dashboard highlighting the growing population at the local jail.

MIRANDA VISCOLI: We can't just keep incarcerating our way out - trying to incarcerate our way out of this. It's not working.

KASTE: Miranda Viscoli is co-president of the group New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. She would rather see this gun emergency focusing on finding ways to change local gun culture...

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KASTE: ...Such as this after-class project at Robert F. Kennedy High School, where students break apart guns that Viscoli's group acquired in gun buybacks, and then they weld the guns into something new.

NATHAN ALVAREZ: It's like a rock star guitar.

KASTE: Eleventh-grader Nathan Alvarez shows off an extremely heavy but working guitar made from guns.

ALVAREZ: This is a barrel of a shotgun, a twin barrel. We got different revolvers, pistols.

KASTE: The hope is that this will help to demystify an object that has come to overshadow these kids' lives.

ALVAREZ: I had a friend go to a party. And some guy just got mad, went to his car, grabbed his gun and just started airing it out.

KASTE: Airing it out, Alvarez explains, is slang for grabbing your gun to make your point. It's a common expression, apparently. Alvarez and his friends can't say whether turning old guns into guitars or xylophones is going to change that reality, but they do seem to take satisfaction in the process.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Albuquerque. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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