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The governor tried banning guns in Albuquerque. The public health emergency continues

Outside the public library in Albuquerque's International District is a memorial mural for victims of shootings. Local police call the neighborhood the "War Zone" because of the frequency of shootings.
Martin Kaste
/
NPR
Outside the public library in Albuquerque's International District is a memorial mural for victims of shootings. Local police call the neighborhood the "War Zone" because of the frequency of shootings.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On Sept. 8, New Mexico's Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, issued a highly unusual executive order.

"We are suspending open and concealed carry," she said. "The purpose is to try to create a cooling-off period while we figure out how we can better address public safety and gun violence."

The temporary order, a response to a rash of shootings in Albuquerque and surrounding Bernalillo County, set off a political firestorm. Lawsuits were filed, police called it unenforceable, other Democrats distanced themselves and at least one Republican legislator called for the governor's impeachment.

At the city-run gun range outside of Albuquerque, there's little support for the ban.

"I don't believe I should follow a law that would put me in danger," says lifelong Albuquerque resident Johnny Atencio. "Because criminals out in the streets have guns — why shouldn't I?"

Lujan Grisham soon narrowed the ban to apply only to parks and playgrounds, and a federal court has allowed that to stand while legal challenges move forward. But the political damage is done, says Zac Fort of the New Mexico Shooting Sports Association.

"Just how far she tried to go with an executive order and you saw so many people come out against it," Fort says. "It going to be like, 'Well, we have zero trust.' "

Albuquerque's city-run gun range is specifically expempted from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's temporary ban on guns in parks and playgrounds.
Martin Kaste / NPR
/
NPR
Albuquerque's city-run gun range is specifically expempted from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's temporary ban on guns in parks and playgrounds.

Meanwhile, the gun violence problem in Albuquerque persists, and the governor's office says it still intends to treat the situation as a public health emergency.

Benjamin Baker, a former police officer who is now policy adviser on public safety to the governor, says the crisis is exemplified by a scene he witnessed in an Albuquerque park in July.

"I had my kid here for football practice — he's 12," Baker says. "And 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."

Baker says guns have long been part of everyday life in this Western city, but the nature of the local gun culture is different. He says people now see guns not so much as a tool, but as something "sexy." And they seem more likely to fire them in anger.

"That should have been a fist fight! At worst!" Baker says of the teenagers in the park. "I cannot recall a time where things were as violent and as bad, and particularly how young the age of the perpetrators has become."

With local police reluctant to enforce the now-limited gun ban, the governor's office is emphasizing broader crime suppression. It's promising state resources to police and the sheriff's department as they send teams of officers out on "warrant roundups," in hopes of finding felons illegally in possession of firearms.

"It's been too embedded in our community — with gun violence and felons with warrants that aren't being picked up — for too long," says Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen. "So we're sending a message and making sure we're getting them in jail."

The New Mexico State Police also has undercover crime suppression units at work in Albuquerque.

"I think there's a lot more guns out there," says an undercover state police sergeant, whose name NPR is withholding because ID'ing him could compromise his work. He guesses half the cars in Albuquerque traffic now contain guns, some of which wind up in the hands of felons or children.

"The thing about the guns is they aren't always reported stolen," the sergeant says. "We have to go to other means and track down the original owner of the firearm, 'Where did that person transfer the gun to?' And they say, 'Oh yeah, that gun's missing and I never reported it.' "

New Mexico passed a law earlier this year that makes it possible to file criminal charges against people who negligently allow their guns to fall into the hands of kids who use them in crimes. Albuquerque state Rep. Pamelya Herndon was the bill's main sponsor.

Nathan Alvarez, 18, shows off a functioning guitar that students at an after-class program at RFK Charter School in Albuquerque, N.M., welded together out of old guns.
Martin Kaste / NPR
/
NPR
Nathan Alvarez, 18, shows off a functioning guitar that students at an after-class program at RFK Charter School in Albuquerque, N.M., welded together out of old guns.

"This was very difficult to bring this bill to the legislature because this is the wild, wild West still in many many ways," says Herndon, a Democrat. "But I think because we had such a series of incidents, particularly involving children, that maybe people began to wake up and listen and believe that it is your gun and your responsibility, and put it away."

Gun safety advocates worry that this kind of legislation will be harder to pass, now, given the uproar over the governor's attempt to ban guns.

"I don't think that was her intent," says Miranda Viscoli, co-president of the group New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. "I think her intent was heartfelt. There's too much gun violence in this city, and open and concealed carry is not making us any safer."

Viscoli worries that, without a broad gun ban, all that will be left of the emergency order is more policing.

"I hope it's not just about more incarceration," she says. "We are now putting another $57 million into police recruitment. Well, what about $57 million in trauma centers? What about $57 million getting more social workers into schools?"

Viscoli's organization holds gun "buybacks," and some of those firearms are turned over to a program at Albuquerque's Robert F. Kennedy Charter School, where students use a forge to tear them apart and then weld them back into something new.

RFK Charter School Director Robert Baade picks out a tune on a xylophone that his students made from gun barrels.
Martin Kaste / NPR
/
NPR
RFK Charter School Director Robert Baade picks out a tune on a xylophone that his students made from gun barrels.

"It's a rock star guitar!" 11th-grader Nathan Alvarez says as he shows off a very heavy — but functional — guitar made from gun parts. The pieces will be auctioned off, and the hope is that the experience will demystify objects that have killed students from this school.

"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," Alvarez says, using local slang for brandishing or firing a gun to make a point.

Alvarez and his friends can't say whether turning old guns into guitars and xylophones is going to change that reality, but they seem to take some satisfaction in the process.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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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