Published Tuesday, May 28, 2013 | 1:31 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, May 28, 2013 | 3:32 p.m.
Fear held sway as Nevada legislators heard three hours of testimony this morning on a controversial gun background check bill.
The competing spectres: an intrusive federal government or another mass shooting perpetrated by someone who shouldn’t own a gun.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, extends background checks from gun store purchases to private party transfers, a move that he says will deter criminals and prevent deaths.
The contentious bill received its last hearing today in the Assembly Judiciary committee before it heads to a full vote of the Assembly and on to Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who said Tuesday he opposes Senate Bill 221.
Passing in a party-line 11-10 vote in the Senate, the bill’s supporters say they don’t want “blood on my hands” if the bill fails and innocent people die violent deaths at the hand of a person illegally possessing a firearm. Opponents say they don’t want an intrusive government stomping over Second Amendment rights and establishing a federal “de facto gun registry.”
Assembly Judiciary chairman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, said at the beginning of the hearing that gun legislation is a “principled” and “emotional issue,” foreshadowing heartfelt testimony of supporters who vowed that background checks would spare innocent people from violent deaths and opponents who warned of an unprecedented and overreaching intrusion into the lives of law abiding gun owners.
The most controversial sections of Jones’ bill would require people who buy guns in private sales to go to a federally licensed firearms dealer to process a background check prior to a sale. The bill has 10 “reasonable exceptions” to the requirement, including transfers between family members and temporary transfers between hunters and shooters at a shooting range.
People who get caught not complying with that requirement would face felony penalties on the second offense.
Family members of victims of gun violence in Nevada and in other states testified that the bill simply adds a “responsibility to a right” to own a gun.
“I feel like it’s too easy to get a gun that is designed to kill people,” said Amanda Hoover, whose cousin died in a mass shooting in at a theater in Aurora, Co. last year.
Several law enforcement officers testified in support of the bill, saying it would prevent gun violence.
“It’s been my experience that the more steps someone has to go through to break the law, they make mistakes and cops have more chances to catch them,” said David Chipman, a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent currently speaking on behalf of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Skeptical opponents shook their heads and sighed as Chipman and other law enforcement officers testified. When Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, asked whether it was futile to add another layer of law to a process that criminals would dodge anyway, the audience in the legislative hearing laughed at the answer.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” said Eric Spratley with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department.
Opponents, however, said that the bill would just create a “de facto firearms registry” and would not prevent criminals from stealing guns or getting someone to illegally buy a gun on their behalf, an illegal practice called a straw purchase.
One man noted that the bill would not have prevented several high profile mass shootings, including the shooting at the movie theater in Colorado and the massacre at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Conn. He noted that these were designated “gun free zones,” sparking laughter in the audience.
While Jones first sponsored the bill because a young woman at his church asked him what he could do as a legislator to prevent gun deaths in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, the freshman senator acknowledged that the bill would not have prevented that specific shooting because the killer stole from a family member to get the guns he used to kill children.
“I wasn’t suggesting that this bill was going to solve the Sandy Hook problem or any other specific massacre in this country,” Jones told the legislative committee. “I am not here to suggest that this bill is the magic solution to all problems, but it is a step.”
Jones has amended his bill three times since introducing it earlier this year. He’s held multiple hearings on the issues of background checks and access to firearms for the mentally ill, a less controversial provision of Senate Bill 221.
He has visited state mental health hospitals, consulted law enforcement and held meetings with interested parties.
“I have tried to meet with everybody who has raised concerns,” he said.
But nothing he’s done has assuaged opponents. He said he had a meeting earlier this week to address hunters’ concerns, but it ended with the group still vowing to try to kill his bill.
Meanwhile, Republican Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, introduced a measure today in competition with Jones’ bill.
Roberson already voted against Jones’ bill, but several Republican Assembly members who have yet to vote on the bill have signed onto Roberson’s proposal, driving another partisan wedge into an already contentious issue.
The entrance of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group funded by Democratic Mayor Michael Bloomberg, into the debate has further increased interest in the bill while also sparking backlash among opponents.
“I just would prefer personally that in the state of Nevada with the culture and traditions that we have, that we look at this from Nevada’s perspective,” said Col. Kim Labrie, retired state aviation officer. “We are entering some dangerous territory controversially. There is a slippery slope threat here.”
Playing down such fears, Jones said the bill is less invasive than a security check at the airport and less time consuming than a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles office.
“You cannot effectively keep guns out of the hands of those who are dangerous to others without expanding background checks,” he said.