How the shooting of a five-year-old girl led a US city to ban guns

Galilea Samaniego, five, was shot dead in New Mexico
Galilea Samaniego, five, was shot dead in New Mexico

It started like any other night when she babysat her neighbour’s four daughters.

Leticia made the girls their favourite meal, beef and potatoes with New Mexico red chilli, which they devoured before snuggling up to watch Disney’s Coco.

Later, when their drowsiness became too difficult to resist, they all happily collapsed into bed.

But when Leticia was jolted awake by a loud bang at around 5am on August 13, the cosy night took a horrific turn.

“At first I thought the fence around my mobile home had fallen down, but I quickly realised we were being shot at”, she told The Telegraph.

As bullets continued to spray her modest Albuquerque home, she ran into the room closest to the road, where three of the girls, aged six, five, and four, were sleeping.

“When I got there two of the girls were sitting down on the bed, crying”, Letitia says, stopping to dab the tears from her eyes.

“I could immediately see Galilea had been hit in the head. She was still alive but whimpering in pain. There was so much blood. My mind went blank and I immediately thought of my son who was shot dead aged 18.”

Protesters against the ruling in Albuquerque on 12 September
Protesters against the ruling in Albuquerque on 12 September - Roberto E. Rosales/AP

Gunshots were still being fired at them while Leticia called an ambulance. They whisked Galilea Samaniego to the hospital, but she died before she made it into surgery.

“She was so caring and lovable and well-behaved. I would never have put her in danger if I had known.”

A total of 13 bullets struck Leticia’s home, which could have easily ended in more fatalities.

Five teenagers have since been charged with murder and conspiracy to murder. All have pleaded not guilty.

It was this cruel and brutal killing of Galilea, along with several other children in the area, that forced New Mexico’s Democrat governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to make an unprecedented move.

Last week, using an emergency public health order, she placed a 30-day ban on people carrying guns in the Albuquerque area, where rampant gun violence ranks it in the top 10 most dangerous cities in the US.

Nestled between the Sandia mountains and a smattering of volcanoes, the state’s biggest city is best known for its picturesque hot air balloon festival and as the backdrop of Breaking Bad.

Radical new legislation

But since Ms Lujan Grisham brought in radical legislation in a bid to halt the number of children being murdered by firearms, the nation’s microscope has centred on the petri dish of brutal homicides, desperate politicians and defiant gun owners.

Republicans and gun enthusiasts were frothing at the mouth over the move, which they declared was a violation of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

Dozens of the county’s 14,500 gun owners marched to the quaint Old Town Plaza on Sunday, proudly wielding their rifles to defy the ban.

Further groups gathered on Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza on Tuesday - including Alicia Otero, who, despite her son Elias being shot dead in 2021, is vehemently against the order.

Alicia Otero, whose son Elias was shot dead outside his Albuquerque home in 2021
Alicia Otero, whose son Elias was shot dead outside his Albuquerque home in 2021 - Susie Coen

She said the legislation is “absolutely worthless”, adding: “The people that she’s banning are not the ones that are committing these murders.”

Ms Otero, who is part of campaign group Crusaders for Justice, displayed a picture of her murdered son alongside the words: “I blame the shooter, not the gun.”

She told The Telegraph: “I feel safer carrying a gun. I am a gun owner. We do carry guns. And I feel better that my sons do carry guns when they go somewhere, because it’s really unsafe in New Mexico right now.”

Dressed in khaki jackets, jeans and caps, gun lovers waved American flags along with signs reading: “The right to bear arms is what keeps us safe.”

Gun owner Mike Martinez, who owns 18 firearms - 12 pistols and a mixture of revolvers, semi automatic and AR-15s - said Ms Lujan Grisham’s order was unlawful and said he and his friends had no intention of following it.

Always carrying a gun

“I’ve got several guns for hunting, sport shooting, for self defence, and if need be, if it comes to a civil war, I can arm my entire family,” the 58-year-old said from a local gun shop.

Mr Martinez, who works in the water industry, said he has carried a gun for 30 years, but has “never had to draw [it]”.

But, he adds: “If there’s a threat, I’m... going to do what needs to be done.”

Cowboy Cameron Carver, 33, who shot his first gun aged four, accused the governor of trying to score political points.

“It’s our inalienable God-given right to carry over or to protect ourselves from people who would do us harm,” he said.

The order has been beset by legal challenges filed by politicians and gun rights groups immediately after it was announced.

Many have relied heavily on a recent Supreme Court ruling in New York that bolstered open-carry rights.

Demonstrators carry their assault rifles to a protest in Albuquerque on 12 September
Demonstrators carry their assault rifles to a protest in Albuquerque on 12 September - Roberto E. Rosales

In a blow to Ms Lujan Grisham, on Wednesday District Court Judge David Urias temporarily blocked her public health order. A further court date was set for next month.

Undeterred, Ms Lujan Grisham vowed to “never stop fighting” to prevent further deaths. On Friday she narrowed down the order to suspend the right to carry firearms solely in public parks and playgrounds.

It could be years before the case makes its way through the legal system, University of California Professor Adam Winkler, who specialises in constitutional law and gun policy, said.

“If the governor thought that this order was going to have an immediate impact on reducing gun violence, she was sorely mistaken,” he said.

He said Ms Lujan Grisham’s order is “likely to be struck down by the courts” given the precedent set by the Supreme Court last year, adding that the situation was the first of its kind.

Austin Heim, political director of the National Association for Gun Rights, one of the plaintiffs suing the governor, accused the politician of “exploiting tragedy to push her own political gains”.

‘Unconstitutional’ ban

Two Republican state legislators, Stefani Lord and John Block, have been calling for Ms Lujan Grisham’s impeachment over the “egregious and unconstitutional” ban.

Ms Lord told The Telegraph that the governor had “abdicated her oath to our Constitution”.

But resistance to the gun policy - one of the most inflammatory issues across the US - did not just come from the usual suspects.

Democrat congressman Ted Lieu said on social media that while he supported gun safety laws, “this order from the governor of New Mexico violates the US Constitution”.

Pushback also came from the Bernalillo county sheriff’s office and the Albuquerque police department, which refused to enforce the order. The state’s Democratic attorney general, Raúl Torrez, told Ms Lujan Grisham he could not legally defend her order as he does not “believe it passes constitutional muster”.

Even local Democrat commissioner Adriann Barboa, 48, who was the victim of a shooting last year when six bullets were fired at her Albuquerque home amid Donald Trump’s allegations the 2020 election had been “stolen”, believes in the right to carry firearms.

While the event was “traumatising” and she believes the governor’s move was brave and a conversation is needed, she said:  “I do believe in our constitutional right to gun ownership.

“I own a 45 and my son owns multiple guns.”

Dangerous city

If there is one thing both sides of the debate can agree on: Albuquerque isn’t safe.

Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, said she can’t remember the last time she visited the city and didn’t hear gunshots.

She said Ms Lujan Grisham was “extremely courageous”, adding: “Open carry in Albuquerque right now is not making us any safer.”

But, even though she acknowledges she is among the minority of residents who believe so, she said she was still “shocked” by the level of resistance.

“We’re little the lone wolf out here saying ‘no, she’s right’. It shows gun rights right now in New Mexico are more important than the safety of our children. And that’s simply a fact.”

Ms Viscoli has helped take 2,000 unwanted guns off the streets, which students Francisco and Devin Quintana, 18 and 16, help turn into everything from xylophones to gardening tools.

Their eight-year-old cousin Maria was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Santa Fe a few years ago.

Hearing gunshots ‘every night’

“Here in Albuquerque it’s like every night you’re waking up to gunshots,” said Devin.

It is very easy for teenagers to get hold of guns on social media, he said, and gang wars and retaliation mean the violence is a “never ending story”.

After Galilea’s murder, Leticia is too scared to turn on the lights in her home. She wants to move, but says she has had no support. Some days, she says, she wishes she were dead.

“I agree with the governor,” she says.

“There should be no guns in the streets. They get into the wrong hands and people lose their lives. Something has to change.”