PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A controversial order by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham intended to address a rise of gun violence in Albuquerque and its surrounding communities has drawn a vote of confidence from the state’s top prelate, even as questions swirl about its constitutionality.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, announced the emergency public health order on Sept. 8 that suspends the carrying of firearms, open or concealed, for a period of 30 days in Bernalillo County, which is essentially Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, and the areas around it.
Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe issued a statement of support for the order on Sept. 11, noting that the number of gun-related deaths in the county is “deplorable and tragic.” Meanwhile, others have pushed back on the order, and one group has already sued, seeking to have it blocked immediately.
“In my view, the governor has been consistent in addressing gun safety through legislation and is not now attacking the Second Amendment. She knows the law,” Archbishop Wester said in a statement. “Rather, I believe she is trying to get us to solve what has become a crisis in our state.”
Offering examples as to why this kind of action was necessary, Lujan Grisham cited the recent shooting deaths of a 13-year-old girl on July 28, a 5-year-old girl on Aug. 14, and an 11-year-old boy on Sept. 6, as well as two mass shootings this year, which left six people dead and 11 wounded.
Beyond the specific incidents, data shows that New Mexico has been near the top in the country in gun-related deaths in recent years. In 2021, New Mexico was ranked third in terms of the most gun-related deaths per 100,000 people nationwide with 27.8, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
“The time for standard measures has passed,” Lujan Grisham said in her Sept. 8 statement. “And when New Mexicans are afraid to be in crowds, to take their kids to school, to leave a baseball game — when their very right to exist is threatened by the prospect of violence at every turn — something is very wrong.”
State police are responsible for enforcing the order, which carries fines up to $5,000, Lujan Grisham said.
The public health order also adds monthly inspections of licensed firearm dealers to check compliance with sales and storage laws, wastewater testing for illegal substances at schools, a prohibition on firearms on state property, and places additional officers in Albuquerque.
Per the order, the Department of Health will compile a comprehensive report on gunshot victims presented at hospitals in New Mexico, including demographic data of the victims, information on the weapon used, and circumstances of the incident, as well.
The order has been criticized as a violation of constitutional rights since it was announced. Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen said in a news conference on Sept. 11 that he would not enforce the ban, calling it “unconstitutional” and saying it “does nothing to curb gun violence.”
The National Association for Gun Rights, and Foster Haines, a member of the association who resides in Albuquerque, have filed documents in the U.S. District Court in New Mexico suing Lujan Grisham and seeking an immediate block of the order.
Josh Kastenberg, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, told The Tablet on Sept. 12 that from a legal standpoint the order is essentially “dead on arrival” because it violates a constitutional right. Kastenberg added that if the state legislature created this law it would stand more of a chance, but even then the courts could still deem it unconstitutional.
“The governor has authority under the state constitution to issue executive orders for limited periods of time without going to the state legislature,” Kastenberg said. “However, when those orders deal with constitutional rights that are embedded in either the Bill of Rights or the New Mexico equivalent, then the orders are somewhat suspect regardless of that.
“We’re talking about a constitutional right, and the governor’s order is directed at law-abiding citizens as well as non-law-abiding citizens, and it’s in that arena that given the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment that the governor’s order is not going to survive,” he added.
Kastenberg also acknowledged that many agree with the impetus for the order, that gun violence has “reached epidemic proportions,” but the controversy exists in how to address the situation.
“I think the archbishop and the supporters of the governor, and even people like me who are trying to give neutral analysis, maybe even people on the right, all agree that gun violence has reached epidemic proportions and innocent people are getting killed and something should be done about it,” Kastenberg said.
“I think the disagreement is on the process,” he said.
In his statement, Archbishop Wester acknowledged the controversy around the order, and said he hopes the community can come together to solve the issue of gun violence. He also, though, made it clear that he doesn’t view the order as a threat to the Constitution.
“I hope to hear more of an outcry over an 11-year-old boy killed by a bullet fired in a road rage incident than over the right to carry a gun,” Archbishop Wester said. “I do not see the governor’s call to action and discernment as a threat to the Constitution.”