ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A federal judge has blocked part of a public health order that suspended the right to carry guns in public across New Mexico’s largest metro area, with criticism mounting and political divides widening over the Democratic governor’s action.
The ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge David Urias marks a setback for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The second-term governor imposed an emergency public health order Friday that suspended the right to openly carry or conceal guns in public places based on a statistical threshold for violent crime that applied only to Albuquerque and the surrounding area. She cited recent shootings around the state that left children dead, saying something needed to be done.
Urias, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Joe Biden, agreed Wednesday with plaintiffs who have accused Lujan Grisham of trampling on constitutional rights. Urias granted a temporary restraining order to block the governor's suspension of gun rights until another hearing is held in early October.
Urias said he doesn't blame Lujan Grisham for trying to do something “in the face of these terrible deaths,” but his duty is to decide a much more narrow question regarding the rights afforded under the U.S. Constitution.
The governor in a statement issued Wednesday said she would not be resigned to the status quo.
“I see the pain of families who lost their loved ones to gun violence every single day, and I will never stop fighting to prevent other families from enduring these tragedies,” she said, although she acknowledged previously that criminals likely would ignore her order.
Lujan Grisham also pledged to increase state police presence in Bernalillo County and to focus on arresting those with outstanding warrants. She also said she would direct the health care system to expand capacity to deal with drug addiction and homelessness.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs told the judge that the governor had other options to address the problem but chose the inflict what some critics have described as a punishment on law-abiding residents.
“The Second Amendment has no exception," said Jason Bowles, an Albuquerque attorney who is representing the National Association for Gun Rights. "It has no part that says as long as a state governor can issue an emergency, you’re allowed to take our citizens’ firearms. It doesn’t say that, there’s no case that ever said that, there’s no historical evidence of that, there’s no support for it.”
Connecticut-based attorney Cameron Atkinson, who represents We The Patriots USA and Bernalillo County resident Dennis Smith, characterized the governor’s action as an emotional reaction to heartbreaking tragedies.
“We get that people’s hearts are broken,” he said outside the courthouse, “but the answer to tragedy is not to take away from the people who need it the most – the means to protect themselves and their families.”
State police had authority under the order to assess civil penalties and a fine of up to $5,000. The sheriff and Albuquerque’s police chief had refused to enforce the firearms ban.
The rest of the public health order, including directives for monthly inspections of firearms dealers statewide, reports on gunshot victims at New Mexico hospitals and wastewater testing for illicit substances, remains intact.
Holly Agajanian, the governor's chief counsel, said the order will save lives.
“I wish when our police officers walked down the street, they could see people wearing a shirt that said ‘good guy’ and somebody with the shirt that said ‘bad guy,’” she said. “But that doesn’t exist.”
Republicans in the legislative majority have called for impeachment proceedings against the governor, saying that her actions make for a slippery slope when it comes to the use of public health orders to effect policy changes.
Those concerns have resonated with the residents who have protested in Albuquerque's public plazas. They say the governor is testing the boundaries of her executive authority again after using public health orders for aggressive lockdowns during the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even top Democrats — including New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez — have suggested that the governor’s time would have been better spent developing comprehensive legislation to tackle the issue.
New Mexico is an open carry state, so the governor’s order suspending the open and concealed carry of firearms affected anyone in Bernalillo County who can legally own a gun, with some exceptions. Just over 14,500 people in Bernalillo County had an active concealed carry license, according to an Associated Press analysis of data provided by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety for the 2023 fiscal year.
Statewide, including Bernalillo County, the 2023 fiscal year data showed just over 45,000 active concealed carry licenses.
The New Mexico Chiefs of Police Association, other top law enforcement officials and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller are among those who are calling for a special legislative session to tackle gun violence.
Keller and Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina on Tuesday outlined what the city has been doing to address crime, saying law enforcement and judicial officials have been meeting since 2021 to develop legislative priorities and other efforts to fix what they referred to as a “broken criminal justice system.”
The officials said many of the proposals have been watered down to the point of being ineffective and vital programs have gone without needed funding.
“Albuquerque families can’t afford political debates that distract us from fighting violent crime,” Keller said. “This is a powerful moment to listen to police and behavioral health professionals to create the change we need in a special session.”
Associated Press writers Christopher L. Keller in Albuquerque, Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Walter Berry in Phoenix contributed to this report.