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Both sides play politics in fight over Nevada background check law

CARSON CITY — The push to implement the stalled background check initiative was all but a done deal coming into the 2019 session of the Nevada Legislature.

But that didn’t stop Republican lawmakers and the National Rifle Association from sending out calls to action to constituents and gun rights supporters, who showed up en masse to voice their opposition to the bill. Republicans held press conferences, gave lengthy, impassioned speeches bemoaning the process they called secretive and complained that the bill runs afoul of Second Amendment rights.

For Republicans, heavily outnumbered in both chambers, the outcry was all they could do.

“I represent constituents who oppose it. They have a right to a voice. Even when you’re pushing water uphill, you talk,” Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, said Friday.

In the end, Republicans had no power to disrupt the process.

Democrats, with a near-supermajority, made good on one of their biggest campaign promises of 2018 in passing Senate Bill 143, which was signed into law Friday afternoon by Gov. Steve Sisolak. The bill tweaks the original language of Question 1, which relied on forcing the FBI to conduct the background checks. The new bill instead allows the state to conduct those checks once the language goes into effect on Jan. 2, 2020.

The second week of the 2019 Nevada Legislature resembled something more akin to a rehashing of the 2016 campaign for the original ballot measure. Democrats say the law will save lives by keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. Republicans chided it as an infringement on Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights and will do little to nothing to reduce gun violence.

Sounding the alarm

When word started to circulate that Democrats planned to introduce the bill on Monday and hold a public hearing the following day, Republicans sounded the alarms. Settelmeyer sent an email to constituents urging them to show up on Tuesday to testify.

For both sides, it was the time to stake their ground.

“This was a show of each side of their core beliefs on a core issue,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. “But when it comes down to it, Democrats knew they had the votes and Republicans knew they didn’t.”

The bill was made public Monday morning after being read into the record on the Senate floor. Within hours, Republican lawmakers held a press conference to again lament what they believed was a rushed process. But Assembly Minority Leader Jim Wheeler, R-Gardnerville, admitted even then that opponents were powerless on the matter.

“The Democrats control the agenda, we do not. We are in the superminority, and we don’t have a lot of power here,” Wheeler told reporters in the news conference. “So what we can do is take it to the people, which is what we’re trying to do.”

Gun rights supporters showed up by the hundreds to oppose the bill at the marathon meeting Tuesday, where lawmakers from both parties listened to everyone who showed up to testify in a meeting that lasted some eight hours.

The Nevada Republican Party sent out an email to members attacking the “hushed secret gun control meetings” and claimed that Democrats would not “even hear out Republicans, and worse yet…THE PEOPLE!”

But Herzik said no one should have been caught off guard or surprised that Democrats moved so swiftly.

“This wasn’t a surprise or a sneak attack. This wasn’t some change of heart. This was why the Democrats, in part, won so resoundingly in Nevada,” he said.

The money factor

The bitterness of that 2016 campaign spilled into last week’s debate.

During a floor debate Wednesday. Sen. Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, called the bill a “ridiculous exploitation of a horrible tragedy to execute Bloomberg’s agenda, in my opinion,” referencing billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, pushed back against the Bloomberg rhetoric, and noted during a floor debate last week that Democrats have been anything but shy about this issue or about their intent on getting this bill passed early in the 120-day lawmaking session.

“It was not Bloomberg who sent out a call to action email to all these folks. It was actually the NRA,” Atkinson said.

Bloomberg and the gun control advocacy group he backs, Everytown for Gun Safety, gave approximately $18 million to the pro-Question 1 campaign back in 2016, and it spent $3.5 million backing the successful 2018 campaigns of Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford. The NRA, meanwhile, gave $6.5 million in its attempt to defeat the measure.

Despite the political drama not typically seen so early in the session, Settelmeyer said the week of debate and discussion among gun rights supporters and lawmakers wasn’t in vein despite knowing they lacked the numbers.

“There was always hope that they would actually amend it,” Settelmeyer said.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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