AR-15s on display at SHOT Show 2024 in Las Vegas
AR-15s on display at SHOT Show 2024 in Las Vegas / Stephen Gutowski

Analysis: First Attempt to Repackage an ‘Assault Weapon’ Ban Falls Flat [Member Exclusive]

New Mexico’s political leadership opted to take the lead in testing the political waters with a rebranded “assault weapon” ban this session. The results don’t bode well for the strategy moving forward.

As the state’s 30-day legislative session gaveled to a close for the year Thursday, it became clear that the vast majority of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s (D.) ambitious gun-control agenda was doomed to fail. Five of the seven major gun-control policies she prioritized heading into the session ultimately died in the legislature, including her marquis proposal for a revamped ban on AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons based on novel federal legislation.

Following the defeat of a traditional “assault weapon” ban bill in the state’s 2023 legislative session, Lujan Grisham vowed to continue searching for ways to get a ban across the goal line in future sessions. That’s when a member of her state’s US Senate delegation provided a new source of inspiration.

In partnership with a group of more moderate Senate Democrats, Senator Martin Heinrich (D.) introduced the Gas-Operated Semiautomatic Firearm Exclusion (GOSAFE) Act last November. The bill, which would functionally ban the same weapons as traditional assault weapon legislation, was touted by Heinrich as being “based on the lethality of their internal mechanisms, as opposed to focusing on cosmetic features.” He and his fellow co-sponsors hoped the bill would create a more politically palatable gun ban for lawmakers to vote on.

And while that hasn’t yet proved out at the federal level—the bill continues to languish in the Democratic-controlled Senate—it was enough to convince Lujan Grisham that a New Mexico GOSAFE Act was just what the doctor ordered for getting a gun ban to her desk.

“I’ve got a set of lawmakers that are more likely than not to have a fair debate about guns, gun violence, weapons of war and keeping New Mexicans safe than members of Congress are,” she told the Associated Press heading into the session. “We will have to see how those votes all shake out.”

Those votes, as it turns out, never came. HB 137, the bill carrying the new ban, never made it to the floor of either chamber before the clock ran out on the session. That’s despite other controversial gun bills dealing with waiting periods and new gun-free zones receiving significant debate and ultimately passing. That outcome suggests it will take more than a rebranding exercise to get hesitant lawmakers to swallow a broad ban on commonly owned semi-automatic firearms.

The bill’s failure this session may not be a total indictment on the assault weapon ban rebranding strategy, though. There were other mitigating factors at play this year. After all, it was not the only gun-control bill that failed to gain traction.

The Democratic-controlled New Mexico legislature also failed to advance bills to make it easier to sue gun businesses, raise the minimum age to purchase firearms, expand the state’s “red flag” law, add liability insurance mandates for gun owners, and create gun-free zones at all parks and playgrounds in the state. Additionally, the bills that did pass related to waiting periods and guns near polling places had to be significantly watered down to get enough lawmakers on board.

It’s possible the AR ban’s failure had less to do with its branding and more with a general lack of appetite for controversial gun bills among New Mexico lawmakers this year. The 2024 session was also abbreviated, lasting just 30 days instead of the full 60-day sessions that occur in odd-numbered years. If lawmakers had more time to deliberate, the bill may have stood a stronger chance.

However, the bill’s political drawbacks remain regardless of year or session length. HB 137, much like the federal GOSAFE Act it replicates, would still outlaw a sizeable portion of civilian firearm and magazine offerings, including the most popular type of rifle in the country. Getting lawmakers from conservative and moderate-leaning districts to support that effort is a large hill to climb, no matter what statutory mechanism supporters use to accomplish it.

Furthermore, lawmakers in other states appear to remain unconvinced of the strategy. Colorado, like New Mexico, failed to advance an assault weapon ban in 2023 despite strong Democratic majorities in both chambers of its legislature. And like New Mexico, lawmakers in Colorado are trying again this year to get one passed. Colorado Senator Michael Bennett (D.) is also a co-sponsor of Heinrich’s GOSAFE Act. But instead of attempting to follow the lead of its Senate delegation, Colorado lawmakers simply re-introduced a traditional features-based “assault weapon” ban, as have lawmakers in Minnesota and Rhode Island.

Future legislative sessions will offer more insight into the efficacy and influence of the repackaging strategy. Despite its failure to alter the fate of a semi-auto ban in New Mexico this year, there are signs that it isn’t going away. In a press release celebrating the end of the state’s legislative session, Everytown for Gun Safety praised the GOSAFE Act attempt and pledged to keep fighting for it in future sessions.

“The bills considered included first-in-the-nation legislation, modeled after Senator Heinrich’s federal bill, that would prohibit the sale, transfer, and receipt of gas-operated semi automatic firearms and large-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition,” the group wrote. “Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action volunteers will continue advocating for the measure ahead of the next legislative session.”

Governor Grisham seems unlikely to shy away from the issue either. Over the last year, she has made gun control a significant tenet of her policy agenda, even when it means pursuing policies that earn her rebuke from other gun-control supporters. Grisham also announced that she is currently considering calling for a special session this year to “press for additional public safety protections,” which could include the semi-auto ban.

But even if the state does persist in pursuing the strategy, this session showed that repackaging controversial gun policies is no guarantee that the new presentation will be any more palatable than the old one.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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