I'll sing you a true song of Billy the Kid
I'll sing of some desperate deeds that he did
Way out in New Mexico a long time ago
When a man's only chance was his old forty-four
— Marty Robbins, from his album Gun-Fighter Ballads
Me and Billy the Kid
Never got along
I didn't like the way he cocked his hat
And he wore his gun all wrong
— Joe Ely, “Me and Billy the Kid”
“I say violence is necessary. Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.”
— *H Rap Brown, July 27, 1967
In the United States, New Mexico’s Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a public health order on September 8, which included, with immediate effect, a 30-day ban on the carrying of firearms in Bernalillo County.
Bernalillo is the state’s most populous county and home to Albuquerque, where there has been a recent spate of gun violence, including the September 6 death of an 11-year-old child near the city’s baseball stadium.
Incidents in Albuquerque have included police shootings. An unarmed Black Lives Matter counter-protester was shot four times in the back by a right-wing vigilante, in June, 2020.
New Mexico’s highly romanticised “Wild West” cultural tradition dates back to its frontier years, when it was a Spanish and Mexican colonial outpost and, later, a US territory seized by force during the 1840’s US-Mexico War.
Hired assassin, Henry McCarty, also known as “Billy the Kid”, is a near mythic New Mexico legend, viewed as both freedom fighter and daring rogue in some quarters. The outlaw-turned-lawman Pat Garret, who killed “The Kid”, also is revered, as is the late Latinx gun-slinger/politician Elfego Baca.
Staged mock “cowboy gunfights” were a tourist attraction in Albuquerque’s Old Town, up until recent years.
Earlier this year, a daytime, real-life gunfight between rival “outlaw” motorcycle club members left several dead outside the main street saloons in the northern town of Red River.
New Mexico is an “open carry” state, many New Mexicans cherish their weapons — for hunting and self-defence, and guns are commonly seen in public.
About 14,500 people in Bernalillo County have an active concealed carry license, according to an Associated Press analysis of 2023 fiscal year data provided by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety. So Grisham’s order would have had wide effect — although she conceded that criminals would ignore it.
Statewide, the same data showed just over 45,000 active concealed carry licenses.
Immediate objections and legal challenges to the governor’s order came from various sectors, citing the US Constitution’s Second Amendment reference to the right “to keep and bear arms”.
Federal District Judge David Urias blocked the gun-banning portion of the health order, on September 13, claiming that Grisham had exceeded her legal authority. She then rescinded most of that part of her order.
However, public outrage against Grisham, much of it stemming from pro-Trump/Republican Party factions, persists. Some Republican Party officials have called for her impeachment. More than 150 angry, gun-toting and “Don’t Tread On Me” snake-flag-waving protestors have demonstrated several times in Albuquerque’s normally tranquil Old Town Plaza.
Grisham told KUNM FM on September 13: “An 11-year-old, lost his life. A 5-year-old lost her life, 143 kids, in the last four years have lost their lives. We ranked among the worst in child wellbeing and in violence in our state. And it is outrageous that we don't do everything every single day, to focus on the people who are depending, frankly, on me to reverse that course, immediately.
“The plan going forward is to keep every single partner, all the pressure points, everyone accountable, until every bad actor that should be picked up and incarcerated is … [a]nd until we see this crisis unfold in another direction, which is safer streets, fewer gun violence incidents, fewer injuries in our hospitals, fewer drug addictions, fewer people who are on the streets with nowhere to turn because there aren't any supports or treatment.
“The risks present in Albuquerque are unacceptable. And we will begin to identify exactly what those accountability measures are.”
Austin Fisher and Andrew Beale, writing in the online publication Source New Mexico, revealed that a review of social media posts “by elected officials and other users” following the governor’s public health order showed “numerous calls” for “Grisham to be hanged or killed by other means”, and for the “publication of private information” about the governor, her family and staff.
Threats against Grisham were made in various forums, including in the comments section of a website owned by a state representative, and during a rally attended by several state Republican party officials. At a rally in Albuquerque’s Old Town, September 9, a few in the back of the crowd called for Grisham to be killed and a woman repeatedly said, “hang that b****.” Police are aware of the threats, but have not made any arrests.
Grisham told Source New Mexico the threats were not surprising, but “incredibly disgusting”, adding that any time she talks about gun violence or background checks, there is “a significant uptick” in threats against her. “I’ve been compared to Hitler, to al Qaeda, to ISIS, you name it. It’s a slurry of slurs ... This is not the kind of discourse I recognise in my state or my community.”
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver strongly condemned the threats against Grisham, her family and staff, saying threats of violence and acts of intimidation have become more and more common toward elected officials “in our polarised political environment”.
Media Matters for America identified examples of comments from users of the “r/conspiracy” subreddit calling for militias in New Mexico to be mobilised and for the governor to be hanged for treason.
Grisham is just one among many US governors and elected officials who have been victims of serious threats in recent years. Such threats culminated in the January 2021 armed insurrection and invasion of the US Capitol in Washington DC and former president Donald Trump continues to make outrageous public statements.
Sadly, in New Mexico, spaces safe from gun violence are few. I witnessed a student being shot on the campus of a local high school.
We have held free speech “Resolana” (gathering place) forums over recent years to directly address the crisis of guns and gun violence in our public spaces and I applaud Grisham’s actions in this regard.
This story is ongoing.
[Bill Nevins is a retired New Mexico teacher and poet.]
* Brown, the former director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, renounced non-violence and was later jailed in Attica Prison (1971‒76), where he embraced Islam and adopted the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. In 2000, he was convicted of shooting two Fulton County, Alabama deputy sheriffs. He is currently in prison serving a life sentence.