Hard question remains on gun background checks


A simple question: If background checks are not required for every gun sale in the state — including those between private parties — what good does it do to improve the database containing the names of people who aren’t allowed to own guns?

In other words, a person could be in every federal and state no-gun-sale database in the country, but if no background check is conducted, it doesn’t do a damn thing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill.

That was the question facing state Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, who on Tuesday introduced Senate Bill 520, a bill that would require courts to immediately report people who have been adjudicated mentally incompetent to the state’s background check database.

Unlike Senate Bill 221, a Democratic measure introduced early in the session by Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, Roberson’s bill would not require that all gun sales be subjected to a background check.

Roberson said his bill would encourage background checks by waiving a fee and by offering civil and criminal immunity to private gun sellers who conduct the checks.

Roberson says he has “serious questions” about sections of Jones’ bill, which was the subject of a lengthy hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The background checks won’t stop criminals from buying guns, and they put an additional burden (not to mention a fee) on law-abiding citizens who would obey the new law’s rules.

But the stubborn facts remain: Every year, background checks stop thousands of people who are not allowed to possess guns from buying them, which means the system is working. And just because criminals can and do go outside that system to purchase a firearm is no reason to get rid of them, any more than we should stop airport screenings because clever and committed terrorists can figure out new ways to hijack airplanes. The point is to make it as difficult as possible on criminals.

That’s what makes Roberson’s alternative bill so curious: While it would make important and necessary changes to mental health reporting rules, those changes would be useless when it comes to preventing criminals from buying guns through private-party gun sales, which are not today subject to criminal background checks.

“Republicans are trying to have it both ways by telling Nevadans they are doing something about gun violence while proposing a bill that will do nothing to protect our children from gun violence,” Jones said. “While my bill will keep deadly weapons out of the hands of criminals and people with severe mental illnesses who are a threat to themselves and others, Nevada Republicans are following the lead of Washington Republicans in opposing any common sense proposals that will actually reduce gun violence.”

Again, it must be said no law — including Jones’ bill — would prevent tragedies such as Sandy Hook or Aurora, Colo. A person determined to obtain a gun and murder won’t be deterred by any law. But that should not be a reason to vote against background checks.

Gov. Brian Sandoval swiftly embraced Roberson’s bill.

“As a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, I believe we must protect law abiding citizens’ right to bear arms,” Sandoval said. “However, I also believe that individuals with mental illness who have been determined to be a danger to themselves or the community should not have access to guns. It is critically important that we take steps to improve how Nevada reports these individuals. I want to commend Senator Roberson for his attention to this important issue and his efforts to strengthen existing law.”

One would search in vain for Sandoval’s praise for Jones’ effort to do the exact same thing, however.

And one would be hard-pressed to explain how improving the reporting — without background checks — would keep guns from the mentally ill.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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