Bill to hold adults accountable for kids accessing guns advances out of committee

Jan. 24—A bill that would hold adults criminally responsible if children or teens accessed their firearms cleared its first hurdle Tuesday in the Legislature.

Members of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted 4-2 along party lines to approve House Bill 9, a measure similar to one that failed in last year's legislative session.

"We want to make sure our children are safe," said Rep. Pamelya Herndon, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of HB 9.

Nothing in the bill would violate a person's Second Amendment rights, she added.

The bill would create two crimes: negligently making a firearm accessible to a minor, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail; and negligently making a firearm accessible to a minor resulting in great bodily harm or death, a fourth-degree felony carrying an 18-month prison term.

Herndon said the measure was inspired by the August 2021 shooting death of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove at an Albuquerque middle school. Authorities say the boy who shot Hargrove brought his father's gun to school to commit the crime.

Hargrove's grandmother, Vanessa Sawyer, told the committee members, "I hope you approve this bill and save the life of children in the name of Bennie's sacrifice."

Several high-profile incidents of gun violence across the nation in the past year have included allegations of a child or teen using a weapon they had obtained from a parent.

In August, a Michigan teen was accused of bringing a gun to his high school and fatally shooting four of his classmates.

Earlier this month, Virginia authorities say, a 6-year-old boy brought a gun to school and shot his teacher, who survived.

Many who spoke in favor of HB 9 said it is a way to ensure children do not access firearms and hurt themselves or others at their home or in school.

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez spoke in support of the legislation. "Being a gun owner comes with great responsibilities. This is a reasonable regulation," he said.

Some law enforcement officials spoke in favor of the law, including Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen, who said there are too many times when officers responding to gun violence involving children realize the shooting could have been prevented if the gun had been stored more securely.

Opponents of the bill agreed the state needs to do more to keep children from accessing guns owned by adults.

Tara Mica, the New Mexico state director of the National Rifle Association, suggested educating adults and children about gun safety and violence.

She said she feared HB 9 would dictate where adults store firearms in such a way that it could "give criminals an advantage over law-abiding homeowners."

Others argued the bill's language remains unclear on many key issues, including whether an adult living in a home with no children would be held accountable if teens broke in and stole a gun and used it in a crime, and whether teens would be permitted to access their parents' firearms to go hunting.

Herndon said those type of incidents would not result in criminal charges.

The two Republicans on the committee — Reps. John Block, R-Alamogordo, and Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park — voted against the measure after noting the lack of certain definitions in it and voicing concerns about whether it would limit gun owners from defending themselves and their homes.