Nevada tackles gun safety background-check – a catalog of public testimony

by Brian Bahouth

A Smith and Wesson handgun for sale at Carson Gun in Carson City, NV - image - Brian Bahouth

Reno – Almost to the day, a year ago a mentally ill gunman killed seventeen students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, and yesterday, Nevada lawmakers considered a bill, SB143, that would implement a system of enhanced background checks for individuals who sell or transfer guns from one person to another in the state. 

In 2016, Ballot Question 1 passed a popular vote in Nevada and in effect would have prohibited the sale of guns between individuals in the state without conducting a background check, but following the election, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt issued an opinion that rendered the voter approved law “unenforceable” for lack of administrative support and resources from the federal and state governments, and thereby, the “unenforceable” status means citizens cannot be prosecuted for not complying with the act.  Then Governor Brian Sandoval supported the decision.

Senate Bill 143 is the same as Ballot Question 1 in all regards except for the agency designated to do the background checks.

Nevada Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson presented SB143 to a joint meeting of the Senate and Assembly committees on the Judiciary and began with a little history.

Hear Senator Kelvin Atkinson’s remarks …

“During the 2013 legislative session began, the whole country was still in shock and morning from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting  that took place the previous December,” Atkinson told lawmakers and a packed hearing room.

“Sandy Hook was the impetus at the time for my colleague Justin Jones and several other legislators serving in the 2013 legislative session with myself,”Atkinson continued.  “He introduced Senate Bill 221, a comprehensive background check measure that included provisions intended to keep guns out of the hands of a person with mental ill issues.

“Senate Bill 221 was heard by many committees, amended several times, and eventually had to be declared an emergency measure before it was finally passed on the last day of the legislative session.  Unfortunately, despite ll the hard work and good faith negotiations that went into passing Senate Bill 221, Governor Sandoval vetoed it, arguing, mistakenly in my opinion, that Senate Bill 221 constitutes and erosion of Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights and may subject other law-abiding citizens to criminal prosecution.

“Let’s be clear,” Atkinson continued.  “Law-abiding citizens would not have been negatively impacted but the background checks provisions in 221, just as law-abiding citizens will not be negatively impacted by the next background check measure that I want to discuss today.

“Ballot Question number 1, approved by voters in 2016.  Qualifying for the ballot with over 100,000 signatures, Question 1 was approved by the voters in November 2016.  A majority of Nevadans made it clear they wanted sensible gun control and sales of transfers. Controls that do not infringe on Second Amendment rights and do not impact law-abiding gun owners.

“That brings me here today.  Sadly we have watched for two years as implementation of Question 1 was first delayed and ultimately denied, due in part from opposition from elected officials and in part in a error in drafting.”

According to Atkinson, the error was that the initiative mandated that the Federal Bureau of Investigation conduct background checks at the direction of the state.  It turned out that Nevada could not direct the FBI in how it uses its resources.

Senator Atkinson went on to describe that SB143 completely repeals Question 1 and replaces it with statutory provisions that will allow Nevada to conduct its own background checks through the Central Repository of Nevada Records of Criminal History.  

“Basically the bill treats private gun sales and certain transfers as if they were made by a licensed gun dealer and subjects the involved parties to the same background check requirements,” Atkinson said and went on to say that states that implement a similar system of background checks see reductions in firearm homicide rates, lower gun traffic rates, and lower firearm suicide rates.

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak offered his first testimony in the legislature as governor saying the will of those who voted for Ballot Question 1 has been ignored for too long and that he would sign the bill when it arrives on his desk, a certainty in a legislature in which the Assembly and Senate are controlled by Democrats.

Hear Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s comments …

“Make no mistake: gun violence is not an easy problem that can be solved with the flick of a pen,” the governor said.  “This legislative body has taken up many measures like this one over the years, and countless Nevadans – both those who could travel here today and those who could not – have spoken up on either side of this issue.  There is no doubt that folks on both sides of the debate are deeply passionate about where they stand. Sometimes the question of how to solve our gun violence crisis can seem so divisive that there’s no end in sight.  And when things get tough, it can seem easier to look away rather than make a difficult decision. But it’s these seemingly insurmountable issues that truly test our courage to do the right thing – even if we know we can’t please everybody.

“At the end of the day, Nevadans deserve better. They deserve leaders who have the fortitude to make tough decisions, knowing full well that many in our state may not agree with those decisions.  It just so happens that in this case, we know that more than half of Nevadans want us to do more to ensure that potentially dangerous individuals don’t have access to firearms.

“Let us send a clear message today to Nevada voters – that when they make their voices heard, we will listen to them, we will respect their will, and we will do what we can to see it through.

“I am also here because, like the majority of Nevadans, I support common-sense background checks on firearm sales.  Those who are against this bill may call it an attack on Second Amendment rights, but I reject such a false choice.

“Because most Nevadans understand that we can uphold the Second Amendment rights of Nevada’s many responsible gun owners and do all we can to prevent those who should not have access to firearms from exploiting the background check loophole and putting our families in danger. 

“We can all agree that criminals and the severely mentally ill should not have access to firearms. That much is clear.

“We can also agree that no single law will prevent all gun violence. But it is our responsibility to do what we can to keep people safe.  

“That includes implementing a common-sense measure that will make it more difficult for those with a criminal background or severe mental illness to purchase a gun.  

This bill is a priority for me, and I look forward to signing it when it’s brought to my desk. This session, we’re finally going to take action.”

William Rosen is an attorney for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and answered lawmaker questions about the bill.  Several Republican lawmakers asked numerous and emotionally pointed question regarding the sparse measure that mirrors Ballot Question 1 in all regards except for the agency designated to do the background checks. 

Sparks Republican Senator Ira Hansen and several other Republicans said the bill was being rushed through the process and that they did not have enough time to consider the measure before the hearing.  Hansen also brought forward the concern, as many other critics did, that SB143 was the first step in rounding up and confiscating weapons from law-abiding citizens.

“I saw statistics indicating tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people over the course of the country have been blocked from purchasing a gun through this sort of a system, yet the actual number of prosecutions is remarkably small,” Hansen said.  “The data I saw suggests that only about a dozen, so I am wondering why you do say your purpose is public safety, but appears the bigger goal is to create some sort of a gun registration list, so that people can ultimately, like they did in the United Kingdom and Australia, come back and confiscate legitimate owner firearms, which we now have a database of in the United States.”

William Rosen assured the senator that the bill did not create a list of guns and, “in fact, the federal government is prohibited from having any sort of registry,” Rosen said.

Catalog of Testimony

The arguments for and against were repeatedly fleshed out during the comment period, so in an effort to make the debate more easily digestible, we offer a catalog of testimony, both for and against.  This is not a complete list of testimony but a representative sampling of hours of public comment.

In support:

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford offered testimony.

Speaker of the Assembly Jason Frierson (D-Clark)  offered comment.

State Senator Yvanna Cancela (D-Clark) offered testimony.

Jennie Hayman lost a son to gun violence.

Peter Guzman president of Latin Chamber of Commerce of Nevada.

Elizabeth Becker lost her daughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Brian Brannman

Angeline is a survivor of the October 1, 2018 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Donna West

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui a survivor of the October 1, 2018 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Justin Jones is a former state senator and a current Clark County Commissioner but spoke as an individual.

Reverend Michael Willoughby

Matthew DeFalco

Elaine Sanchez a former advisory board member for Nevadans for Background Checks.

Christiane Brown of the Northern Nevada Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Serena Evans a policy specialist for the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Gabrielle D’Ayr

Virginia Valentine president of the Nevada Resort Association.

John Jones on behalf of the Clark County District Attorney’s office.

Will Bregman of Battle Born Progress.

Jeri Burton is president of the Nevada chapter of the National Organization of Women.

Maria Teresa Lieberman Battle Born Progress.

Rick McCann is executive director of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers.

Heather Salud is a survivor of the October 1, 2018 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Rusty McAllister representing the Nevada AFL-CIO.

In Opposition:

Casey Balkenbush

Steve Johnston is a licensed firearms dealer from Reno.

Mack Miller

Donald Mosely

John Hermler

Dan Reeve National Rifle Association.

Gerald Antinoro Storey County Sheriff.

Derrick Clark

Byron Brooks

Linda Cannon