They should’ve banned assault weapons while they were at it

August 6, 2019 6:22 am
Sisolak signing SB143

Gov. Steve Sisolak signing Nevada’s background check legislation into law in February.

Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democrats take pride, and rightly so, in the gun safety agenda they enacted this year.

In February, Sisolak signed into law a bill requiring background checks on most private gun sales. Voters had approved the measure in 2016, but former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, enthralled by gun culture ideology and consumed  by political ambition, had blocked it from taking effect.

In June, Sisolak became emotional as he signed a multi-faceted gun violence bill. The measure included a provision allowing people to seek a court order to take a gun away from a family member they think shouldn’t have one. The bill also mandated that people lock up their guns so kids can’t get at them. And the bill outlawed bump stocks, the device used to commit the mass murder from a Mandalay Bay hotel room in 2017.

A semi-automatic assault weapon ban was never part of the gun safety agenda at the Nevada Legislature this year.

It should have been.

On July 9, three and a half weeks after Sisolak signed the bill banning bump stocks, a man bought an AK-style semi-automatic assault rifle in Nevada. According to the Giffords Law Center, eleven states, including California, have laws banning assault weapons or at least specific laws restricting their sales. Nevada is not one of them.

Less than three weeks after buying the weapon, the man took his Nevada purchase to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, where he killed three people and injured 12 others.

The murders in El Paso and Dayton, also carried out with semi-automatic assault weapons, were the 250th and 251st time in the U.S. this year that multiple people were murdered by a single person at a single time, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Four Democratic members of the Nevada congressional delegation, Sen. Jacky Rosen and Reps. Dina Titus, Steven Horsford and Susie Lee, are co-sponsors of federal legislation to ban assault weapons and their large capacity clips.

Virtually all the Democratic candidates running for president support an assault weapons ban.

The federal legislation would make it a crime to “import, sell, manufacture, transfer or possess” any semi-automatic assault weapon or large capacity clip.

People who already own them would be grandfathered, and sale or transfer of grandfathered weapons between private parties would require a background check conducted by a dealer. Owners who volunteered to relinquish their weapons/clips would be compensated, Australia-style.

There is no guarantee that a Democrat will win the presidency. Similarly, there’s no guarantee that Democrats will win enough U.S. Senate seats to overcome the obstruction of GOP Senate leader and self-described Grim Reaper Mitch McConnell, who refuses to allow his Republican Senators to vote on background check legislation, red flag laws, an assault weapons ban and other gun safety measures. (Moscow Mitch can’t even be bothered to protect elections from foreign interference. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Putin will echo fellow Trump handler Rupert Murdoch and call for responsible U.S. gun laws.)

Most gun deaths in the U.S. are not from mass murders. But mass murders are the most terrifying, the commonly white male perpetrators deliberately committing acts of terror. The El Paso mass murder is being investigated as such. Mass murders are the reason children are now routinely drilled in school about what do in the case of an armed attack. Mass murders are why people at the El Paso Walmart shopping for back-to-school supplies might have had bulletproof backpacks on their list.

So banning assault weapons makes sense. Nevada lawmakers should have done that.

To be fair, for most of the 15 years since the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004, proposals to revive bans on semi-automatic assault weapons have been viewed as political suicide, a result of decades of the weapons industry literally capitalizing on the nation’s dystopian exceptionalism when it comes to guns. It’s only recently that politicians, who are typically followers not leaders, have awakened to the growing shift in public opinion about gun law reforms.

Nowhere was Nevada residual skittishness on the issue more evident than in the same language that created one of the nation’s toughest bump stock bans. Another part of that bill would have restored power to local governments to take steps of their own to respond to gun violence — power that had been stripped during the freakish 2015 GOP-controlled legislative session that followed the freakish 2014 red wave election.

The language was stripped after labor unions, weirdly enabled and assisted by the Everytown gun reform group, complained that local authority over gun regulations might scare off a gun show and jeopardize jobs.

One shudders to think what manner of political inconvenience may have befallen our not-so-fearless leaders had they been so aggressive as to fight for an assault weapons ban.

Empowering local governments by allowing them to preempt state laws and pass more stringent regulations are an important means of limiting access to guns. Too bad legislators couldn’t do that.

And as it happens, research shows that statistically, background checks, licensing, permitting and other regulations to control access to guns will curb the gun violence more effectively than banning assault weapons.

If Nevada banned assault weapons, a radicalized white male — again, a not uncommon mass murderer profile — could still get his weapon in another state. (The same applies to universal background checks, but that argument had no impact whatsoever on Nevada lawmakers who were eager to literally rush that measure into law.)

So barring federal action, and with so many other states also failing to act, maybe it doesn’t matter that Nevada politicians didn’t include an assault weapons ban in their gun reform agenda.

But multiple laws enacted during this year’s legislative session went into effect July 1. If an assault weapons ban had been one of them, it might have mattered to people in Gilroy.

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Hugh Jackson
Hugh Jackson

Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.