Nevada Voters are Taking on the NRA Because Republican Lawmakers Won’t

by Kira Lerner –

A ballot initiative to expand background checks has become a bitter battle.

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Wearing “Buck the NRA” pins and “Moms Demand Action” t-shirts, roughly a dozen volunteers on Tuesday called their neighbors to encourage them to stand up to the gun lobby.

The National Rifle Association, one of the country’s most powerful special interest groups, has notoriously held firm control of Congress and state legislatures for decades, shutting down frequent proposals for gun safety legislation. But across Nevada, there are signs this tight grip may be loosening — both literal yard signs and more subtle ones, too.

The Silver State has one of the highest rates of gun violence in the country. Nevada’s gun suicide rate is the fifth highest across the country, and it has the eighth-highest rate of gun murders of women. Yet when the state legislature recently tried to pass a bill to expand background checks, the effort failed.

That’s why Nevandans decided to take the issue directly to the people. In November, voters will get to decide whether they want to expand background checks to all gun sales, including those through private sellers.“It just makes so much sense,” said retired firefighter Doug Smithson, a volunteer for Nevadans for Background Checks. “If you go to a gun store today, you have to fill out a background check. Every year, that process stops thousands of felons, fugitives, and domestic abusers. So what do they do? They go online, they find somebody that will sell them one, or they go to a gun show.”

While gun-related initiatives are on the ballot in four states, Nevada’s has become a particularly bitter battle, pitting the gun lobby against a coalition of pro-gun safety groups. It’s the only state where the NRA has established a coordinated campaign to defeat the measure, and spending on the initiative tops that of any other state.

Recent polls put support for Question 1 at roughly 66 percent. And with Michael Bloomberg-funded organizations like Moms Demand Action spending roughly $3 million on the cause, the background check proponents have been able to match and even surpass the NRA’s multi-million dollar spending.

That puts the NRA in unfamiliar territory — as the underdog.

“We’re doing our best to keep up with the proponents, who have spent significantly more than we have,” said Robert Uithoven, campaign director for NRA Nevadans for Freedom. “I don’t think we need to spend as much as they do, but we have to spend enough to at least counter their message.”

In May 2013, just five months after the Sandy Hook shooting shook the nation and reinvigorated conversations about gun safety legislation, the Democrat-led Nevada legislature passed a bill to close the background check loophole. But it was a short-lived victory. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the legislation, claiming it would infringe Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights.

“Then it just became a question of, ‘okay, whats our next option?’” said Jennifer Crowe, communications director for Nevadans for Background Checks.

As a concession to the governor and conservatives, the group proposed a measure for the ballot that is less strict than the version that was vetoed. The ballot initiative allows for firearm transfers between most immediate family members and makes the first violation a gross misdemeanor, not a felony. Yet Sandoval still came out against it.

But a majority of voters feel differently. Crowe said that as she speaks to Nevadans, many are surprised that background checks for private gun sales are not already required by law. A 2014 survey from Public Policy Polling found 78 percent of Nevadans in support, although that number has dropped as the election nears and as the NRA opposition intensifies.

Uithoven, the NRA’s campaign manager, said that when people learn more about the proposal, their support often fades. He maintains that the initiative would make Nevada’s gun laws stricter than California’s (a claim that Politifact calls “half true”), that the law is “poorly written,” and that there’s no existing loophole that needs closing.

“If you want to change the law in Nevada to the extent that this will — this is a significant change in our law — go through the legislative process,” he said.

He also narrowed in on the fact that cousins are left out of the family exchange exception and that the law prohibits “common place practices” that occur across the state.

“This initiative goes way too far,” he said. “I think it causes drastic changes in Nevada law that will affect thousands upon thousands of everyday, law-abiding citizens. What this will do is make criminals out of thousands and thousands of people who are not criminals.”

Crowe, who has publicly debated these issues with the NRA, said the gun lobby is grasping at straws. “Their arguments are kind of all over the place because they’re not in line with where most people are,” she said.

The NRA’s opposition has earned the support of 16 of 17 current sheriffs, while the proponents are touting endorsements from groups like the state AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

But Mike Haley, the former sheriff of Washoe County, broke with his former colleagues to support Question 1.

“To me it was an extraordinarily rational decision, especially when I talk to people and they have this shocked look on their face because they believed that you already have to get a background check when these weapons change hands,” he said.

From a law enforcement perspective, Haley said that the loophole currently makes officers’ jobs harder.

“It’s unfair, it’s unreasonable, and it’s unenforceable,” he said. “We cannot stop felons, fugitives, persons with mental health disorders from accessing weapons if they don’t go through a background check.”

Research shows that states that mandate background checks for all gun sales have lower rates of gun violence. In those states with stricter laws, there are 46 percent fewer fatal domestic violence shootings, 48 percent fewer police officers fatally shot, and 48 percent less gun trafficking.

“You’re not going to stop everybody, but it definitely makes it a lot harder for people who aren’t supposed to have guns to get them,” Crowe said about the data. “We know that that’s going to save somebody’s life.”

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress