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Attorney General warns sheriffs to enforce gun law

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Herrington calls law requiring background checks unenforceable

Late last week sheriffs across the state received a letter from New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, warning failure to enforce a new law mandating background checks for nearly all firearm sales could endanger public safety and open those sheriffs to potential legal liability.

“As law enforcement officials, we do not have the freedom to pick and choose which state laws we enforce,” Balderas wrote in the letter.

Senate Bill 8 (SB 8) will require federal background checks on all gun buyers, including private gun sales, though it exempts guns that transfer ownership through inheritance or sales between two law enforcement officers. The law is set to go into effect July 1.

County sheriffs have been some of the most vociferous opponents of the bill, claiming it will interfere with the rights of law abiding people to keep and bear arms.

But Balderas wrote in his letter that police chiefs and sheriffs who refuse to perform background checks of individual gun buyers could be held liable if a gun ends up in the hands of someone who does someone harm.

Chaves County Mike Herrington though said Monday the law is unenforceable. He said it is federal firearms licensed dealers who have access to the database used to conduct background checks, not law enforcement. He added the new law does not provide additional tools that would allow police to enforce SB 8.

“There is no way for me to know if you’ve had a background check and the database for a background check is not privy to law enforcement,” Herrington said.

He said law enforcement always has some discretion, such as when someone who is driving with an expired driver’s license gets pulled over. Herrington said that most of the time people who get pulled over for that offense are just told to get it fixed, although the law allows for those drivers to be ticketed.

Herrington said because the law cannot be enforced, not implementing the law amounts to that same type of discretion.

Opponents of SB 8 are currently trying to get the law repealed through a statewide referendum, although the New Mexico Secretary of State has said SB 8 is a law meant to protect public peace, health and safety, and as such cannot be overturned through the referendum process.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.