For more than two years, the successful 2016 Nevada ballot question calling for expanded background checks on gun purchases has been at a standstill.
But now, legislative leaders are sprinting a new version of it to the finish line.
A hearing on a bill aimed at fixing complications from the 2016 measure got underway Tuesday morning and ran until almost 5 p.m. with one break. Several dozen people came to speak out on both sides of the bill, with supporters echoing the need to stop gun violence and opponents criticizing what they saw as the bill’s encroachment on Second Amendment rights and its lack of specificity in certain language.
The bill passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and may now go to the Senate floor. It must still go through the Assembly committee process.
The hearing was the start of an ambitious plan by the Legislature’s majority Democrats to get the bill before Gov. Steve Sisolak and get it signed by the anniversary of the Parkland shooting on Thursday.
In brief remarks to the committee, Sisolak called the bill a high priority for him and said he planned to sign it.
“For too long, the will of the voters was ignored,” he said. “That hopefully will change today.”
Introducing the bill, Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson said it was designed to keep guns out of the hands of people who were legally barred from having them, including felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill.
Atkinson said the purpose was to help prevent incidents like the November 2016 shooting death of Las Vegas LGBT teenager Giovanni Melton by his father, who’d obtained a gun despite having been convicted of domestic battery. The boy’s father reportedly told authorities that he shot him because he’d “rather have a dead son than a gay son.”
“We simply cannot allow this to go on in our state anymore. We must act,” Atkinson said.
Dozens of people turned out for the hearing this morning in Carson City and at a video-connected conference room at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas.
Among them were Second Amendment activists who criticized both the bill and the accelerated process for passing it.
The bill would iron out a sticking point in the 2016 measure over who would conduct the expanded checks. The ballot question called for the FBI to be responsible, but federal officials balked and Republican state leaders at the time deemed the measure was unenforceable.
Although Brian Sandoval and Adam Laxalt, then the state’s governor and attorney general, were criticized for doing too little to resolve the problem, they prevailed in a lawsuit aimed at forcing them to take action to bring about a solution.
The new legislative measure is a workaround that would make the state Department of Public Safety responsible for conducting the new checks. State officials already run checks on weapon sales involving a licensed gun dealer, as required by existing state law.
The new bill, like the 2016 measure, would extend that requirement to sales involving nonlicensed individuals.
The bill contains exemptions for sales and transfers of guns between family members, as well as certain types of temporary transfers — giving a friend a gun in a life-and-death emergency, for example.
Supporters say those elements, which were also contained in the 2016 measure, were designed to address concerns from gun owners. In 2013, Sandoval cited the lack of those exemptions as the reason for vetoing a bill to establish universal background checks.
As with previous legislation, the bill is designed to close a loophole that allows individuals prohibited from gun ownership to obtain one through a private sale at a gun show or over connections made on the internet.
This morning, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford cited Nevada’s high rate of suicides by firearms and homicides of women by domestic partners as reasons the measure was needed. Like Sisolak, he said the bill would help protect Nevadans while not infringing on Second Amendment rights.
“Lives are, in fact, on the line,” he said.
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, addressing criticism that 80 percent of gun violence wouldn’t be prevented by universal background checks, said he was speaking out for “the other 20 percent.”
“We don’t know how many lives we’ll save with background checks,” he said. “But in my opinion, 20 percent is well worth it.”
But Republican committee members questioned what would be defined as a transfer of a weapon, with several raising such hypotheticals as whether someone staying in the home of a gun owner could technically be considered in possession of the weapon and therefore need to undergo a background check.
William Rosen, an attorney for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said a transfer would essentially be defined as giving possession of a gun to another person. Rosen said the bill was similar to legislation in 19 other states, and transfer issues weren’t a problem in those states.
“No law can possibly address every hypothetical thrown at it,” he said.
Under the bill, nonlicensed individuals would take their weapons to licensed dealers who would order background checks. Opponents said that provision would unfairly affect rural Nevadans, many of whom live more than 10 miles from a licensed dealer.
Atkinson — a gun owner with a concealed carry permit — noted that many rural Nevadans also live several miles from grocery stores.
“If somebody has to go a couple more miles to get to a dealer who could process them, so be it,” he said.
Atkinson and Rosen said the bill would not restrict the rights of law-abiding gun owners in any way.
Sen. Ira Hansen, a gun-rights advocate, drew cheers from the crowds in both Carson City and Las Vegas when he remarked that rates of gun violence are high in such cities as Chicago and Baltimore, despite strict gun restrictions in those communities.
Hansen further suggested that the measure wasn’t aimed at public safety but rather at creating a gun registry that could be used to establish strict gun restrictions. In Las Vegas, several members of the crowd raised their hands and said “Hallelujah” at the comment.
But Rosen flatly rejected the suggestion, noting that the federal government is prohibited from establishing a national gun registry under congressional action.
Among speakers supporting the measure were Oct. 1 survivors, medical professionals and representatives from the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, the Nevada Resorts Association, the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers and the Nevada chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Opponents included former Clark County District Court Judge Donald Mosley, who said the bill would do little to prevent criminals from getting guns.
“This is a veiled attempt to confiscate guns. I’m convinced of that,” he said. “People will roundly ignore the requirement to get background checks. Then Bloomberg and his minions will be heard to say, ‘Well, we need to register these guns.’ They want a national database so they can track guns and confiscate them.”
Other speakers brought up concerns about the bill, including increases in price due to background checks, what they called a non-specific definition of gun transfers and concerns about a trend toward future gun legislation.
Jason Evans, a Spanish Springs resident, cited studies that could not prove a link between background checks and fewer gun deaths in some states.
“These background checks do not stop criminals from getting guns,” he said.
Wendy Starkweather, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, supported the bill and spoke about the impact she said gun violence has on the entire population.
“In short, we are all survivors and we are all affected by gun violence and we in Nevada have the opportunity to take action,” she said.