In recent months, New Mexicans have been forced to face the horrific reality of multiple kids shot to death. Froylan Villegas, just 11 years old, was the most recent victim — killed while leaving a baseball game with his family in what police say was a road rage incident. It’s an appalling crime that leaves an open wound on our state and unimaginable pain for his family and loved ones.
People in Albuquerque, in particular, have been fed up with high crime rates for years — with little tangible progress from local police initiatives, and in several instances, federal intervention. So, it’s understandable that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham would feel compelled to take some action to, at the very least, acknowledge the need for different solutions. But what was she trying to accomplish with an attempt to ban the public carrying of firearms in Bernalillo County?
When crafting meaningful, effective public policy, data is essential. But raw numbers on a spreadsheet don’t bring tears to people’s eyes. Stories of children gunned down while they’re sleeping or leaving the ballpark do — and that’s where the governor focused her frustration. In her executive order justifying urgent, emergency action on gun violence, Lujan Grisham provided just one data point: a five-year-old statistic showing that New Mexico’s rate for gun deaths had increased by significantly higher margins than the national average between 2009 and 2018. What follows that single statistic are seven clauses appealing to emotion rather than evidence.
In her own words, Lujan Grisham issued the order at least in part because, “people want action,” and her intent was to do something that “initiated a robust response.” Clearly, she’s succeeded if those were her goals, but does the last week of political chaos get us any closer to meaningful, effective action on gun violence? That remains to be seen. What it has undeniably accomplished is a ratcheting up of the pre-existing perception that everyday people aren’t safe in Albuquerque.
“No one right now in New Mexico and particularly in Albuquerque is safe at a movie theatre, at a park, at a school, at a grocery store…you just aren’t safe,” the governor said after detailing the public health order. But later in the news conference she admitted she didn’t expect criminals to comply with her order, and that she wanted to send a “resounding message to everyone else in that community.” So, again: If not to curb gun crimes, to what end did the governor take this action?
During Executive Producer Jeff Proctor’s roundtable discussion on this issue, we heard some compelling perspectives on the potential political motivations behind the governor’s executive orders. The one that caught my ear came from States Newsroom editor Marisa Demarco, who said she sees Lujan Grisham taking aim for the upcoming legislative session at reforms to the state’s cash bail system that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2016. The governor’s favored change would shift the burden of proof for pretrial release to the defendant, forcing them to convince a judge that they aren’t a crime risk if released. It’s an idea that failed quickly in the 2023 session, with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth telling the Associated Press, “I don’t support adding new presumptions that I think would result in thousands of people being held that don’t need to be held.”
Investigators haven’t given us any reason to believe the person who shot Froylan Villegas was a suspected criminal out of jail on pretrial release. And of the 72 other homicides in the city to this point in 2023, officials haven’t indicated that any of the suspects were released awaiting trial. If the governor is trying to set the table for an emotional legislative response that would keep more people behind bars before they’re convicted of a crime, appealing to perception rather than reality is the only way she’s going to be able to get it done.
That brings me to another piece of Lujan Grisham’s order that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as her attempted gun ban — the suspension of the state’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative. It’s a program that applies almost exclusively to non-violent young people, with the goal of redirecting children away from criminal behavior, without incarceration. “The notion that there’s no accountability must end,” Lujan Grisham said at last week’s news conference, as justification for this provision in her order. In her own words, the governor is pausing an initiative that’s had decades of successful outcomes in other states to address some nebulous public perception.
The governor’s public heath order does call on the Department of Health to compile and issue a “comprehensive report on gunshot victims.” That information surely will help inform any government action on gun violence, but to issue a constitutionally-suspect ban on guns before knowing the whole picture is at best premature, and at worst irresponsible.
Gun violence is arguably the biggest issue facing Albuquerque, and our collective emotional response to it is not debatable. Our emotions are valid, and we don’t need to defend them. But we cannot let them justify action without concrete support, especially when it undoes thoughtful, evidence-based initiatives that haven’t been given enough time to yield results. The governor explicitly said that her order was meant, at least in part, to start a debate ahead of January’s 30-day legislative session. But if our leaders are set on handling this in the statehouse, they shouldn’t waste what could be their best chance to get this right by pushing through proposals based on emotion instead of evidence.
-Lou DiVizio, Senior Producer
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