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The past few weeks have seen New Mexico politics increasingly polarized as proposed gun control legislation makes its way through the process in Santa Fe and a significant opposition movement fights back through counties and cities declaring themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries.”

This past week, both sides became more antagonistic with new Twitter battles cheering on their supporters. What is this accomplishing? Can we reach an agreement and develop consensus, or do we continue down a path of intransigence and confrontation? 

From my point of view, the time has come for a fresh perspective that seeks to address some of the concerns of both groups while truly protecting and improving the lives of New Mexicans.  Let’s start by recognizing both sides are sincere in their beliefs.

Proponents of the gun legislation earnestly believe that we must reduce “gun violence,” that too many people are killed every year by individuals with guns. Opponents are equally passionate that creating more laws will do nothing but restrict law abiding citizens from possessing firearms, which is a right specifically outlined in our constitution. At face value, there appears to be little room for compromise.

However, within these positions there is common ground. That common ground can be found in addressing the drastically underfunded mental health care system in New Mexico, which is in crisis not only in the metropolitan areas, but the rural parts of our state as well. How is this a compromise? 

First, much of the proposed gun legislation, which is the source of so much emotion and opposition, could be withdrawn.

Second, both sides commit to funding greater mental health care and providing law enforcement with more options to get people in crisis into this care. This accomplishes many things. People suffering from significant mental health problems have been a frequent source of perpetrating violence by use of guns. 

Here in Farmington we have dealt with a number of armed and threatening individuals who are truly in a mental health crisis. Getting these people into care should be an absolute priority if we are trying to keep citizens safe. Equally, people who can not get care even when desperately needed, frequently find their way into the criminal justice system. 

With few other options to help, police are frequently forced to wait until the individual breaks the law and then “solve the problem” by arresting the person. Consequently, people who need help are deemed “criminals” and thrust into the court and prison system, where their true problems are only rarely addressed.

Further, people with untreated mental health problems often become our homeless population as they are unable to function enough to maintain a job. In this vulnerable position, they can become targets of crime, becoming an easy person to victimize.

Currently, in a system far under resourced, we have a four basic options: First, hope the person gets better (highly unlikely). Second, wait until the person commits a crime and get them off the street for a time (usually short) by incarceration. Third, wait until the person is a crime victim and then see if we can assist; if not, the person resumes their life of vulnerability. Fourth, wait until there is a spot open somewhere in the system that can begin to address the person’s needs. None of these are good options and the system is extremely overwhelmed.  

At the start of this session, the legislature had a reported $1 billion surplus. We should commit $50 Million, a mere 5 percent of this, to improving our mental health care system, helping to protect vulnerable people while not criminalizing them and protecting all New Mexicans. Early projections for next year’s budget surplus predict another $1 billion surplus. 

We should commit another $50 million to this same goal. The results will be less polarized infighting, a chance to protect all New Mexicans and a commitment to treating people as opposed to incarcerating or ignoring them. This is a path forward we should all support.

 

Steve Hebbe is the chief of the Farmington Police Department.

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