New Mexico justices hear challenge to public health ban on guns in public parks and playgrounds

New Mexico State Police vehicles line the street in front of the state Supreme Court providing heightened security on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Santa Fe, N.M. Advocates for gun rights are urging the court to block emergency orders by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that temporarily ban firearms at public parks and playgrounds by treating gun violence as a public health crisis. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee) (Morgan Lee, Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SANTA FE, N.M. – Advocates for gun rights urged the New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday to block emergency orders by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham restricting people from carrying guns at public parks and playgrounds in the state's largest metro area and address gun violence as a public health crisis.

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday without issuing a ruling in a lawsuit brought by Republican state legislators, the National Rifle Association and several residents of the Albuquerque area that include retired law enforcement officers, former federal agents, licensed firearms instructors and a gun-shop owner.

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The state’s legal standoff is one of many — from an Illinois ban on high-powered rifles to location-based restrictions in New York — since a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year expanded gun rights and as leaders in politically liberal-leaning states explore new avenues for restrictions. A California law was set to take effect Jan. 1 banning firearms in most public places, but a legal challenge has held up implementation.

Lujan Grisham, a second-term Democrat, first invoked the orders in response to a spate of shootings that included the death of an 11-year-old boy outside a minor league baseball stadium.

Supreme Court justices questioned attorneys for more than an hour as they weighed whether to rein in the governor's use of emergency powers to restrict firearms. Outside the courthouse, there was an unusually heavy police presence with New Mexico State Police vehicles lining the street.

“It seems to me that there are guardrails, so to speak. … You have to say the nature of the public health emergency," Justice Michael E. Vigil, told an attorney for the governor. “Where is the statistical information showing that gun violence in public parks in Albuquerque and in Bernalillo County is a problem? There’s nothing in these declarations that show that.”

Justice Briana Zamora said New Mexico lawmakers have given the governor broader emergency powers in comparison with many states. She also sounded a cautionary note on executive authority.

“If we allow this, what are we not allowing?” she asked.

The high court adjourned without setting a deadline or a decision.

The petitioners say Lujan Grisham has overstepped her authority as governor in violation of the Second Amendment and that gun violence and drug abuse don't qualify as public health emergencies that can limit access to firearms even temporarily.

They accuse the governor of infringing on the Legislature's authority and overriding gun regulations that have been refined over the course of more than a century, including concealed handgun laws. The state Republican and Libertarian parties also support the legal challenge.

“The executive orders are so far outside and so contrary to the emergency statutes that, in their entirety, they are invalid — by trying to declare a state of emergency base on ‘gun violence’ and ‘drug abuse,'" attorney Jessica Hernandez argued Monday on behalf of gun rights advocates.

In defining what constitutes a public health emergency, the governor asserts that both gun violence and drug abuse “comfortably fall within” the category because of extremely dangerous conditions posed by weapons and toxic chemical agents posing an imminent threat to many New Mexico residents.

The temporary orders don’t violate constitutional rights, she says.

"Those are the powers that the governor has, and those are the powers that she was reelected to use, again, in consultation with her public health experts about what constitutes an emergency,” said Holly Agajanian, chief general counsel to the governor.

Separately, a federal judge has allowed enforcement of the gun provision to continue while legal challenges run their course. The October ruling by U.S. District Judge David Urias marked a victory for Lujan Grisham.

The governor's orders, first issued on Sept. 8, 2023, sparked public protests among gun rights advocates and additional legal challenges in federal court that are still underway.

Initial restrictions on carrying guns were scaled back from the original order that broadly suspended the right to carry guns in most public places, which the Bernalillo County sheriff and Albuquerque’s police chief had refused to enforce.

The governor’s health order includes directives for gun buyback efforts, monthly inspections of firearms dealers statewide, reports on gunshot victims at New Mexico hospitals and wastewater testing for indication of illicit drug use at public schools.

Longtime NRA leader Wayne LaPierre resigned before Monday’s start of a civil trial in New York over allegations he treated himself to lavish perks at the expense of the powerful gun rights group.