New Mexico AG: Sheriffs must enforce gun control law

The Associated Press
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico's attorney general says law enforcement agencies must enforce a new law expanding background checks to nearly all private gun sales and that they could be liable for damage claims if they don't.

Attorney General Hector Balderas issued the warning in a letter sent Thursday to police chiefs and county sheriffs, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The law will take effect July 1.

Numerous county sheriffs opposed the legislation when it was being considered by the Democratic-led Legislature, but it was approved by lawmakers and then signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on March 8.

Critics argued the expanded background checks and other gun control measures would be difficult to enforce and do little to address gun violence, and at least 26 county commissions approved so-called Second Amendment sanctuary ordinances in opposition.

Several sheriffs in Nevada and Colorado also have won support in their counties for similar resolutions in protest of legislation in their states.

Supporters said the New Mexico law will make it harder for criminals or others prohibited from having a weapon to obtain a gun.

Balderas, a Democrat, told the law enforcement agencies that they have legal obligation to enforce the broadened background checks requirement regardless of whether they agree with the legislation.

"As law enforcement officials," Balderas said, "we do not have the freedom to pick and choose which state laws we enforce."

The president of the New Mexico Sheriffs' Association said Balderas' letter was premature because the law hasn't taken effect and because law enforcement officers have discretion in how they enforce laws.

"We're elected by the people in our communities," Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace said of his fellow sheriffs, "and that's what we're looking at - what do the people in our communities want?"

The law will require a background check before nearly any gun sale, including between two individuals. There will be exceptions for sales between two close family members and between law enforcement officers.

Balderas' two page letter said a police chief or sheriff who refuses to enforce the law could be held liable if a gun sale results in a prohibited person obtaining a firearm and doing harm.

"In short," Balderas said, "the taxpayers of your city or county assume the financial risk of your decision to impose your personal views over the law."

The attorney general said he knows sheriffs and police chiefs have discretion over how to run their agencies, but he said  personal political opinions "do not absolve us of our duty to enforce validly enacted laws."

New Mexico's three most populous counties - Bernalillo, Doña Ana and Santa Fe - didn't join the movement against the bill, and Lujan Grisham last month accused the sheriffs who opposed the new law of being part of a "national misinformation campaign" driven by the National Rifle Association.

State House Republicans are trying to get the issue before voters through a rarely used voter referendum process.