‘LEgally Armed’ Rule Has Critics Gunning For New Mexico Town

ESTANCIA, N.M. (AP) — Mayor Nathan Dial said a recently approved rule requiring people to be “legally armed” to attend an Estancia Town Council meeting is just a way of sending notice that the town is not going to let the state dictate what it can and cannot do.

“Rural New Mexico is just tired of being pushed around,” Dial told the Albuquerque Journal as he sat in town hall with a snub nose .357 on his hip. “This is not just about the Second Amendment. This is about all civil liberties.”

But Morrow Hall, one of the two Estancia Board of Trustee members who voted against the rule, said it’s just a stunt, a staged event, the mayor’s reaction to a ban on bringing deadly weapons into the state Capitol building.

“I told the mayor, ‘I can’t support your rule. It’s crazy,’” Hall said last week. “He said, ‘I know it’s crazy. But it’s also crazy I can’t carry a gun into the Roundhouse.’ ”

Hall said he doesn’t understand why anyone would need to bear arms in the Roundhouse.

“To me, that means going in to fight,” he said. “I don’t know who you would fight at the Roundhouse that you would need a firearm.”

But Dial said the term “legally armed” doesn’t necessarily mean a weapon and could be defined as armed with knowledge.

The state ban on weapons in the Capitol building goes into effect Dec. 6. The Estancia rule requiring people to be legally armed to attend meetings goes into effect Dec. 7.

Nov. 30 is the deadline the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has set for Estancia to rescind the rule or get sued “for constitutional and statutory violations.”

“This new rule put forth by the Town of Estancia unequivocally violates the First Amendment,” reads a letter sent by ACLU New Mexico to Dial and the town’s Board of Trustees. “The law will deter community members from attending town council meetings to petition their local government, thus creating a chilling effect on the exercise of their fundamental rights under the First Amendment.”

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Not unanimous

Estancia’s four-person Board of Trustees split 2-2 on the “legally armed” rule. Dial broke the tie with his affirmative vote.

The rule reads: “In order to attend an Estancia Town Council meeting, one must be legally Armed. By entering this meeting, you acknowledge that you are prepared to defend yourself and beliefs with what you believe is necessary to do so. (This definition is at the discretion of the Executive Branch.)

“Any and all Religious, Medical or Ethical exceptions will be honored without question.”

Dial said he never intended for the rule to keep people from exercising their right to attend public meetings.

“I don’t want anyone to be afraid to show up,” he said. “If they don’t want to carry a firearm that’s their constitutional right.”

The mayor said the rule is intended only to make clear that the town has no intention of enacting a ban on weapons at public meetings as the state has done at the Capitol.

The mayor’s contention that “legally armed” could include knowledge doesn’t wash for Maria Martinez Sanchez, deputy legal director for ACLU New Mexico. She said no one could be expected to interpret the rule’s wording that way, and that ACLU will sue if the rule is not rescinded by Nov. 30.

“They need more specificity in order for people to know if they are violating the rule,” Sanchez said.

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‘Cautious about government’

Estancia, the Torrance County seat, is about 52 miles southeast of Albuquerque and 17 miles south of Moriarty. Dial, 52, said the population, not including the inmates at the Torrance County Detention Facility, is about 1,200. The detention center is the town’s major employer.

Strung out along N.M. 41, which serves as the town’s main street, are a couple of dollar stores, a food truck, a couple of service station/convenience stores, an auto store, a hardware store and a restaurant. Other buildings appear empty or in disuse. A cafe closed just a few weeks ago.

Dial grew up in Estancia and graduated from Estancia High in 1986. He is retired from the Army, having served about 25 years with the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve, including stints on active duty. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Central America.

He was recently elected to his second term as mayor, a job that pays him $650 a month after taxes.

There is no doubt he is a staunch advocate for Second Amendment rights. He pushed a measure declaring Estancia a Second Amendment sanctuary town, and in January 2019, he showed up at the state Capitol wearing a sidearm to test a new rule banning weapons of all kinds during joint sessions of the House and Senate.

Bitty Lutrick, 63, who grew up in Estancia, supports Dial’s stance against state government.

“I like the mayor because he is not one to sheepishly back down to government regulations if they infringe on our individual liberties,” Lutrick said as she took a break from work at The Front Porch, the food truck business she started here six months ago. “I just feel we need to be cautious about what we let the government do. I’m not afraid of my fellow citizens, but I’m cautious about the government.”

Estancia native Cruzita Zamora, 38, feels the same way about Dial.

“I think he has our best interests at heart,” said Zamora, who is preparing to open an apothecary, soapery and gifts business in Estancia. “I do feel people tend to view guns differently in the city than we do out here. In the city, it’s about crime. Out here it’s an everyday thing. We have them for hunting and for self-protection from whatever we need self-protecting for. I carry guns for snakes.”

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Waste of time

Tom Kennedy, 47, lives just north of Estancia. He is a lecturer in biology at the University of New Mexico and moved to Torrance County to get away from Albuquerque’s crime. He visits Estancia several times a week to take his young daughters to the town park or to watch birds.

He admits he sees things differently than most of his neighbors in this rural part of the state.

“I have guns, but I don’t carry them,” he said. “There is no need to carry a gun unless you are hunting an elk. It seems to me people out here are more interested in Second Amendment rights than in water needs, funding schools and fixing roads. If the mayor is talking about legally armed being about knowledge, then I don’t think he is legally armed.”

Board of Trustee member Hall, 73, a former Estancia mayor, was just reelected to his third term on the panel.

“Essentially, the rule is meaningless,” he said. “It has nothing to do with Estancia except that man (Dial) lives here. It’s a waste of a lot of people’s time. I just hope it doesn’t end up costing us money.”