Nevada voters last year narrowly approved a ballot measure to require background checks for gun sales between private individuals.
Nearly a year later, the resulting law isn’t being enforced. State officials cite federal objections — a disagreement that initiative backers say is ripe to be resolved.
Nevada became the latest flash point in the gun control debate Sunday after at least 59 people were killed and 527 others injured at a concert by a gunman firing from a Las Vegas hotel room overlooking the outdoor venue.
Authorities haven’t revealed what sort of weapons were used or how they were procured. But the troubled course of Nevada’s attempt to expand background checks offers a window into the difficulties of enacting firearms control, an emotional issue being raised anew following what appears to be the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
"It is certainly possible to work these things out,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland in New York who has written five books about gun control. “And that happens all the time, certainly with respect to federal government-state government relations — when the parties are willing to do it."
About a dozen states have passed tighter gun laws since the Sandy Hook schoolhouse massacre in 2012. Roughly twice that number have loosened regulations, Spitzer said.
Nevada, a “purple state" between left and right, may offer room for agreement on measures such as background checks, which enjoy support from most people including gun owners, said Spitzer.
"Could they have worked this out? Of course they could have,” Spitzer said. “But the key state leaders have shown little interest in doing that. So guess what? The law is going nowhere."
Nevada voters in November on a vote of 50.45 percent to 49.55 percent passed a measure requiring federal background checks for sales of guns between private individuals. The new requirement to close what some call the gun-show loophole was in addition to the longstanding requirement for background checks for purchases from licensed gun dealers.
The ballot measure required both the buyer and seller to appear before a federally licensed firearms dealer to request a background check. The aim was to keep guns from felons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill, according to the measure’s backers.
The proposal was backed by $3.5 million from Michael Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and $14.5 million from Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that Bloomberg supports.
The National Rifle Association spent $6.5 million opposing what was known as Question 1.
Don Turner, president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, the NRA’s state affiliate, opposed the measure, saying it could lead to a database of gun owners.
Turner said that under Nevada law, it’s already illegal for individuals to sell guns to those prohibited from owning a firearm. "There’s responsibility between two parties," he said.
In December, the FBI said in a letter to state officials that Nevada could better assess applicants’ fitness themselves because records such as arrest warrants and drivers’ records are kept by the state. State legislation can’t dictate how federal resources are applied, according to the letter.
Adam Laxalt, the state’s Republican attorney general, concluded in December that the measure was unenforceable, citing the FBI letter. Laxalt had opposed the requirement, and his campaign manager, Robert Uithoven, led NRA Nevadans for Freedom, the political action committee that opposed the measure.
Monica Moazez, a spokeswoman for Laxalt, didn’t immediately respond to a telephone call and email. The FBI declined to comment.
Gun-control advocates want the state to find a way to entice federal cooperation, rather than take the FBI decision as a final defeat.
"That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a solution," said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She called the situation “frustrating but not particularly surprising that the NRA is opposed to increasing background checks,” adding that gun makers support the advocacy group and stand to make more money with fewer restrictions.
Each mass shooting in the U.S. reignites debate over gun rights. Firearms are involved in the deaths of more than 33,000 people in the U.S. annually, about two-thirds of which are suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Washington, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called for a special gun-violence committee and a vote on a background check bill. Several House Democrats called for Republicans to scuttle a bill that would make it easier to obtain silencers that muffle the sound of gunshots.
Republican Senator Dean Heller, who represents Nevada, said on Twitter that he was praying for the victims of the “senseless, horrifying act of violence” and that had spoken to Sandoval and would continue to monitor the situation.
Heller is one of the most vulnerable Republicans in next year’s midterm elections, and the shooting could increase pressure on him to back any effort in Congress to revive federal legislation that would impose stricter background checks on gun purchasers.
Heller voted against a version of background-check legislation that came close to Senate passage in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
President Donald Trump, who won the presidency with the backing of the NRA, opposes expanded background checks yet has said he supports efforts to strengthen the current system.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday it would be “premature” to discuss policy responses such as gun control until authorities have a clearer understanding of the event.