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Before Las Vegas Shooting, Nevadans Voted for Stricter Gun Control. Then the State Refused to Enforce It.

Nevada's recent politics suggest just how difficult it can be for states to enact gun control measures -- even when a majority of citizens favor them.

A woman cries after a mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas on Sunday.
(AP/Invision/Al Powers)
Not long after alleged gunman Stephen Paddock opened fire on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday night, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 500, progressive politicians and activists around the country began calling for stricter gun control measures.

Early reports suggest the gunman was armed with as many as 20 firearms and may have used an automatic weapon in the attack on the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, which now ranks as the nation's deadliest mass shooting on record.

“While details are still unfolding, one thing is for sure: It doesn’t have to be this way," said Shannon Watts, founder of gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, in a statement Monday. "Americans should be able to go to concerts, to nightclubs, to elementary schools and movie theaters without worrying about the threat of gun violence. While we grieve for the 50 people shot and killed and the more than 400 who are hospitalized, we must also act in their honor. Gun violence is preventable.”

But Nevada's own recent politics suggest just how difficult it can be for states to enact gun control measures -- even when a majority of their citizens favor them.

Nevada has some of America's most lax gun control laws. Residents don't need a permit to buy or own handguns, rifles or shotguns, according to the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the state doesn't require gun owners to register their firearms. There's no mandatory waiting period in Nevada before residents are allowed to purchase a gun. In 2015, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Nevada an 'F' grade for its gun control measures. (It's not clear whether any of these measures would actually have restricted Paddock's ability to obtain firearms.)

Then last year, Nevada voters considered a change.

In a ballot initiative, voters were asked whether they supported expanded background checks for private gun sales and transfers, including online and gun show sales. The campaign in favor of the initiative received more than $14 million in financial backing -- the majority of which came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety group, according to state elections officials. The NRA and other gun rights groups contributed $6.7 million opposing the ballot measure.

The initiative won narrowly, receiving 50.4 percent of the vote. Citing the new law, the Law Center upgraded Nevada from an 'F' to a 'C-,' placing it in the middle of the pack among the 50 states.

But the matter was not over.

Just weeks after the election, Nevada Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt said he wouldn’t enforce the new gun regulations. Nevada is one of 12 states that conduct their own background checks, using a state Central Repository, rather than relying only on the FBI's database. But the language of the ballot initiative said that the expanded checks would have to be done through the FBI. In a letter to Laxalt, the FBI said it would not help Nevada with the background checks because the language in the ballot dictated the way federal resources were spent, and the FBI by its own policy could not comply. 

Gun control supporters accused Laxalt of playing politics. He had publicly opposed the ballot measure during the campaign, and critics said he was using the FBI letter as an excuse to ignore a law he simply didn't agree with.

“Nevada wouldn’t be unusual in having a hybrid system,” Jennifer Crowe, Nevada spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “There are other states that have some checks run through the FBI and some checks run through their in-state agencies."

In fact, 18 states have requirements like those in the Nevada law, according to the Gazette-Journal.

Opponents of the measure, meanwhile, said the backers had purposefully crafted it to rely on the FBI in order to appear revenue-neutral on the ballot. Had it called for the state to conduct the checks, the ballot measure would have had to mention what it would cost the state.

Having the FBI conduct the checks would still cost Nevada $650,000, but that fiscal analysis was excluded from the ballot question, which opponents say helped the measure pass.

"Given that [the ballot initiative] passed by less than 1 percent of the vote, I believe a sizable fiscal note could’ve changed the outcome,” said Robert Uithoven, a campaign director affiliated with the NRA, in December. “The drafters and the sponsor, Michael Bloomberg’s group, never asked law enforcement to give input on the initiative. ... Had there been some collaboration, this issue might have been brought up earlier, and this could’ve been avoided.”

Uithoven suggested that the confusion over the law -- and the attorney general's refusal to enforce it -- arose because the ballot measure had been pushed by groups from outside Nevada.

"This is what happens when you allow uninformed, out-of-state lobbying groups that prey on people's emotions to write your laws,” he said.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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