There have been more than 300,000 civilian gun deaths in the United States in the last 10 years. That’s right up there with the number of military casualties in the nation’s biggest wars. The country's surgeon general says gun violence is a public health issue.
But in rural parts of New Mexico, many people use guns as tools in their daily lives.
"This is my 12-gauge shotgun, and I’ll say it’s definitely the most versatile tool in the gun cabinet," Billy Ogle said. "And you can take anything from the smallest game to the largest game in North America down."
He showed me his collection of firearms on his property in Belen where he and his wife keep goats, cows and chickens. "They make blanks, and it can just be a noisemaker, which is mainly what I use it for at night when I hear coyotes come to the animals," Ogle said. "But I’ve never actually shot any animals. I just use it for scare tactics."
But that’s not the only reason Ogle maintains an assortment of handguns and rifles. "The real reason I own guns is I think they’re fun," he said. "I like to shoot them. I like the sport. Main thing I do is shoot holes in paper targets."
Ogle said even people selling guns privately should be required to conduct background checks, though he’s not sure how a rule like that could be enforced. But a lot of people think background checks violate the Second Amendment of the Constitution. They argue those checks don’t thwart criminals but instead hinder people who intend to legally buy guns to defend themselves, their families and their property.
Jeffrey Swanson is a professor of psychiatry at Duke University. "New Mexico is one of the states with the least amount of gun regulation," he said. He visited Albuquerque recently as part of the Consortium For Risk-Based Firearms Policy. "New Mexico is interesting. It’s about average in terms of its household gun possession rate, according to surveys," he said. "Let’s just assume that people are telling the truth to a surveyor when they ask: Do you have guns at home?"
Swanson said 34 or 35 percent of New Mexicans say they have guns at home. In other states, that number can be closer to 50 percent.
New Mexico does not have some federal gun restrictions on the books, and that means those rules aren’t enforced here. Like prohibiting people from buying guns who’ve been committed short-term to a mental institution involuntarily. Or people under temporary domestic violence restraining orders.
"But New Mexico is very high in its firearm-related fatality rate," he said. "A lot of that has to do with an elevated suicide rate." The state’s suicide-by-firearm death rate is almost twice the national average. And according to the CDC, 68 percent—a little more than two-thirds—of New Mexico gun deaths are suicide.
Garen Wintemute is an emergency doctor in Sacramento, California. "Most people who die from gunshot wounds die where they are shot," he said. "As clinicians, we don’t have a chance to save their lives."
He’s also part of the panel of people who came to town to talk about the real demographics of firearm fatalities. "Most gun deaths involve old white guys, not young men of color," he said. "Most gun deaths are suicides, not homicides."
That holds true for New Mexico, too. Wintemute said risk factors are things like a history of violence, alcohol abuse or depression. That’s why the consortium is suggesting that if people have two DWIs within five years, they should be prohibited from having guns for five years. The same would go for people convicted of misdemeanor crimes involving drugs. And for those who commit violent misdemeanors? That would be a 10-year gun prohibition.
But the policy change at the top of Wintemute’s wish list? "If I had to pick one, which is always not a smart idea, it would be to require a background check for every purchase of a firearm."
As things stand, if people don’t purchase guns through a licensed retailer, there’s no requirement for a background check in most cases. "There’s no record. There’s no paperwork. The gun is untraceable," he said. Wintemute said without universal background checks, even people who are already prohibited from buying guns can still get their hands on them—never mind the additional restrictions the group is proposing.