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With Background Check Initiative In Court, Where Is Nevada On Gun Laws?

Alexa Ard

Last November, Nevada voters approved Question 1, an initiative that requires all private firearm sales and transfers to undergo background checks, including those at gun shows.

But a video taken less than a week after the Las Vegas massacre shows gun sellers at a Reno gun show selling firearms without the required background checks.

Nevada’s governor and attorney general have been sued for what critics say is a lack of enforcement of Question 1.

Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Billman speaks with our reporter Noah Glick to break down what’s going on and to look at the current state of guns in Nevada.

Remind me of the background check initiative. What is that law and what’s the status of it?

Question 1 essentially requires that all private gun sales and transfers undergo background checks. That means firearms sold at gun shows, as well as any sale or transfer between private parties.

There are several exceptions, however. Background checks are not required when selling or transferring antique firearms, or guns to any law enforcement, military personnel or immediate family members.

Temporary transfers can also be made to anyone without a background check if it’s meant to protect against imminent danger, or if the person borrowing the gun is using it to shoot at an established range, or hunting, or a few other things. Or if the person loaning it is also there.

The initiative narrowly passed last November, by less than one percent. But it did pass, so it’s technically law right now. However, Nevada Attorney General and Gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt says the law is unenforceable.

Nevada's Background Check Initiative by KUNR Reno Public Radio on Scribd

And there’s a lawsuit right now going on related to that initiative, right?

That’s right. Nevadans for Background Checks, the group behind Question 1, actually filed a lawsuit against Laxalt and Governor Brian Sandoval last month in Clark County. They say the governor has failed to see that the laws of the state are being enforced.

But here’s the background you kind of need to know behind all of this.

Language in Question 1 says that background checks must be conducted by the FBI. But currently, Nevada uses their own state system, which includes state records. So for this to work, the state would actually have to switch their status so that the FBI could then conduct background checks on the state’s behalf. That would likely take a move from the governor’s office.

Laxalt’s office has said that the state can change their status at any time. But he says that no other state has really come up with any sort of arrangement like this, to use the FBI to enforce state laws, only federal laws.

And the FBI has actually weighed in. What are we hearing from that agency?

In two separate letters to Adam Laxalt’s office, the FBI has said that it will not do background checks for Nevada, for two reasons. One, the agency says that Nevada’s background check system is more comprehensive, because it includes state records. And two, that state law cannot dictate federal resources.

And what’s the other side of the lawsuit saying, the advocates for the checks?

The plaintiffs are arguing that Governor Sandoval hasn’t started conversations with the FBI to discuss changing the status here in Nevada, to allow the FBI to come in and do those background checks.

So they’re arguing that the governor doesn’t need to go through the Attorney General’s office. The governor can start those conversations on his own.

Adam Laxalt Legal Opinion Dec 2016 by KUNR Reno Public Radio on Scribd

Let’s go back to the video in question. What can we see in that video and who released that?

Everytown for Gun Safety is a national gun control advocacy organization. They sent a private investigator, who’s a former Nevada law enforcement officer, to a Reno Gun Show six days after the Las Vegas massacre.

And what you can see in the video is this investigator buying guns at the gun show, including one similar to the one used in Las Vegas, without undergoing any of the background checks. That’s the sort of thing that Question 1 was trying to close, the so-called “gun show loophole.”

Basically, this investigator goes into the gun show, asks different sellers if there is a background check. Most said no, he paid cash and walked out the door with some new firearms. Here’s Everytown President John Feinblatt.

“The private investigator walked out with AR-15s, with .308 Rifles with scopes. And the seller had no idea if they were a convicted felon, whether they were a domestic abuser, or whether they were someone with a serious and dangerous mental illness,” Feinblatt said.”

I did reach out to the National Rifle Association, but that organization declined to comment on this story. Adam Laxalt’s office also did not respond to several requests for comment. And Governor Brian Sandoval said that he cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

So what happens now? What could we potentially expect in terms of enforcement around Question 1?

That’s a great question. It’s in the hands of the courts right now.

Attorney General Laxalt has said that he does not support changing Nevada’s status, because that would mean trading a superior system, he says, for an inferior one. Governor Sandoval has also said he is committed to maintaining Nevada’s current status.

So unless the courts rule in favor of the plaintiffs, which would still require agreement from the FBI, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see enforcement of Question 1.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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