A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 14, 2013
In the U.S. Senate last week, something amazing happened. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., got together and worked out a compromise for a gun-control bill, a bill that would expand background checks for people buying guns.
It was a compromise. Unlike the original bill proposed by Democrats, the Manchin/Toomey proposal would only cover unlicensed dealers at gun shows and Internet firearm sales, not sales between individuals.
I felt a tinge of déjà vu when I heard about this. It took me all the way back to February, when something similar happened in the state Legislature.
In its original form, House Bill 77 — introduced by Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque — would have required background checks for all gun purchases. At first, it seemed the measure was dead on arrival. Early in the session, the House Judiciary Committee tabled the bill.
But something remarkable happened. Rep. Nate Gentry, the House Republican whip, worked with Garcia to come up with amendments to satisfy some of the concerns in the original bill.
Like Manchin and Toomey just did at the national level, the state lawmakers took out the provision that would have required background checks for all private gun sales. In this case, they limited the measure to gun shows.
The state bill also was amended to establish a procedure to align the state’s mental health and criminal conviction records with the federal background check system.
Gentry was able to get a few fellow Republicans to go along with the compromise in the Judiciary Committee. And soon after, Gov. Susana Martinez said she would sign the bill in the form it was in. The bill ended up passing the House. It looked as if a bipartisan gun-control bill actually had legs in the Legislature.
But the bill hit the Senate with a thud. Gun enthusiasts began campaigning heavily against it. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Martinez, in the last week of the session, didn’t even want to hear it, though eventually, after some public pressure, he did. The bill squeaked out of that committee.
But for reasons best known to Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, HB 77 didn’t get heard until the last hour of the session. At that point, Senate Republicans were successful in running down the clock.
Why did this happen? I don’t really know.
There are a couple of theories that have been kicked around. The governor didn’t seem to be working hard twisting arms to get the bill through the Senate. Could it be that she had second thoughts about being the first Republican governor to sign a gun-control bill in modern times? Signing the bill surely would have made national news and would have received lots of national exposure. This seems unlikely, but is it possible she didn’t really want this national exposure for an issue so widely despised by the GOP base?
Or did Sen. Sanchez sandbag HB 77? He claimed he supported it. If so, why did he wait so long to hear it on the floor? Could it be that he didn’t want the governor to get the national spotlight for signing a gun-control bill?
That might sound petty, but similar things have happened before in the Legislature.
In his last year in office, Gov. Gary Johnson, once a supporter of capital punishment, said he’d consider signing a death-penalty repeal. This was right after the state had executed someone for the first time in more than 50 years, which caused Johnson to rethink his position.
I’m almost certain he would have signed a bill had the Legislature delivered. However, the Democratic leadership at the time didn’t want to let Johnson get the credit and attention he would have received. So they didn’t even try to move a repeal bill that year.
So, even though gun-control advocates are celebrating the Manchin/Toomey compromise as a victory, the New Mexico situation shows it ain’t over till it’s over.