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Las Vegas protests raise gun control questions

Updated June 6, 2020 - 12:19 pm

Clark County lawmakers’ inability to regulate firearms was inserted into a debate this week on a proposal to curb late-night violence reported at Black Lives Matter protests.

The county Commission was considering a ban of large backpacks, purses and strollers at all protests, along with other items capable of transporting objects like bricks, rocks and fireworks that police officials say have been used for violence.

“We can have this discussion about strollers and purses, but we ought to also be having the discussion about Metro being a partner at the Legislature in ensuring that we can protect your officers from gun violence,” Commissioner Justin Jones told Metropolitan Police Department lobbyist Chuck Callaway, who was advocating for the backpack ban and previously did not support county efforts for authority over gun law.

After three straight days of largely peaceful protests that saw clashes with police as night fell, the scattered violence reached a crescendo on Monday when Las Vegas police officer Shay Mikalonis was shot in the left cheek and gravely wounded outside Circus Circus. A judge Friday said the suspect “clearly wasn’t there to protest,” but that Mikalonis was working to keep the peace.

At about the same time, Las Vegas police at the tail end of the Monday protest shot and killed a man in front of the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse who authorities said was armed with multiple firearms, appeared to be wearing body armor and reached for a gun. The officers were not wearing body cameras.

Jones, a Democrat like all fellow commissioners, had previously argued for local gun control: He testified in favor of a bill introduced by Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui during last year’s legislative session that would have, in part, restored local governments’ authority to regulate firearms.

At the time, he said the county might want to restrict firearms on the Strip under certain circumstances, but the bill was scrapped and replaced.

Callaway, who said the department was neutral on the bill as a whole, testified about his concerns over preempting the state, which presently has sole authority over gun control, calling it a “double-edged sword.” He explained Wednesday that he believed laws had the potential to be widely varied by jurisdiction, depending on board ideology, and said allowing each local government to set its own rules could lead to confusion over what is legal and not throughout the state.

“I hope that Metro will change its position and be an advocate for that next time around,” Jones said.

Christiane Brown, co-president of the Northern Nevada chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Friday her group will push for preemption during the upcoming legislative session next year.

“To tie the hands of the entire state of Nevada with regards to firearms laws puts us in a place of helplessness if something happens,” she said.

But Don Turner, president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, warned against making an “emotional” or “political” decision without knowing all the facts of Monday’s shooting on the Strip.

Police reviewing protest footage

Meanwhile, Callaway said that police were combing through “hours and hours” of body camera footage to investigate violence at recent protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in Minneapolis police custody, including instances of weapons concealed in backpacks and other carrying devices.

He said that police would scrutinize any reports of officers behaving badly too.

“We’re looking at all acts of violence out there, so if we believe that an officer has acted inappropriately, we will review that body camera footage and take action,” Callaway told commissioners.

That comment was in response to Jones, who said that Las Vegas-based attorney Athar Haseebullah was “thrown to the ground” by police during a recent protest and handcuffed while waiting for an Uber. Jones said he had spoken about it with the department’s Citizen Review Board and its new executive director, Julie Kraig.

“We definitely want to hold everyone accountable out there to be doing the right thing,” Callaway said. “It’s vitally important.”

He added that over the first weekend of protests, close to 30 officers had been injured.

Majority of protesters peaceful

Friday marked four straight days of peaceful protests, even into the night. Federal and local officials have said the majority of people involved in demonstrations have been peaceful but warned of agitators who infiltrate crowds to stir violence.

Three Las Vegas men with ties to the U.S. military and the anti-government “boogaloo” movement were charged in federal court this week for conspiracy to cause destruction during local protests. Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said there have been “some clowns” sprinkled in with the vast majority of peaceful demonstrators.

Callaway said that when agitators take advantage of emotional movements, it can reflect negatively on all protesters. Similarly, he said he did not want the department to be “painted with a broad brush” based on actions of few officers, although he acknowledged Metro was “far from perfect.”

During a Wednesday meeting occurring at the same time at Las Vegas City Hall, Mayor Carolyn Goodman shared a similar refrain.

“We, the peaceful protesters together as one, don’t let them paint our city with their voice and their actions,” Goodman said about bad actors. “Every protester must stand up and stop the looting, the rioting and the harm to our community.”

The City Council unanimously passed a ban on backpacks, strollers and other items during protests.

Following a discussion that waded into ongoing civil unrest over racial injustice and police brutality, the commission chose to delay a vote until June 16 as they formed a working group anticipated to include community members.

“We’re also discussing a systemic issue that has plagued communities of color for decade after decade after decade,” said Weekly, who is black, clarifying he was speaking specifically of the black community. “It’s such a heavy weight to have to endure this. It’s so painful, honestly.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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