Incident should give second thoughts on gun laws

During the 2013 Legislature’s debate over a bill to require background checks for almost all private-party gun sales, there were plenty of what-ifs.

What if a felon, knowing he couldn’t buy a gun at a store, figured out he could easily do so from a private party? What if a mentally ill person learned the same thing?

But there are no longer any what-ifs. Thanks to the Reno Gazette-Journal, we know a 19-year old man, who’d been adjudicated mentally incompetent (and thus ineligible to own a firearm) responded to an online ad and within six hours was the proud owner of a slightly used Glock pistol, complete with extra magazines. The seller? A Reno police sergeant, Laura Conklin, who met her buyer at 4 a.m. at a Starbucks.

Sgt. Conklin did not perform a background check, nor was she required to do so. But even if she had, it wouldn’t have made any difference: Because of a coding error, the young man’s court judgment had not been transmitted to the state database.

Confronted by his parents, the young man ran out of his home with the weapon and was eventually apprehended by Washoe County sheriff’s deputies, without incident. The weapon was returned to Conklin, the money returned to the boy’s family.

It wasn’t a tragic ending. But it so very easily could have been. The system failed in pretty much every way it could have.

With this incident in mind, I contacted Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office. I wanted to know if he had re-thought his opposition to Senate Bill 221, a bill from Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, that would have required immediate transmittal of records of mental health problems to the state background check database, and mandated that all private gun sellers do what licensed gun dealers are already required to do: run a background check.

“Under current Nevada state law it is unlawful for individuals with a mental illness who have been adjudicated by the courts to be a threat to possess a firearm,” wrote Mary-Sarah Kinner, Sandoval’s spokeswoman. That’s true.

“Under both current statute and SB221, it is incumbent on the seller to perform due diligence,” she added.

But that’s manifestly not true. Under current state statute, sellers may request that a background check be done — but the law is entirely permissive. A background check is not required. And to suggest any kinship between existing law and the requirements of SB221 is simply wrong.

It’s worth noting, however, that there would have been a requirement to conduct a background check under the bill Sandoval vetoed. (The governor in his veto message said the requirement “constitute[s] an erosion of Nevadan’s Second Amendment rights under the United States Constitution and may subject otherwise law-abiding citizens to criminal prosecution.” He also said it wouldn’t have been effective in stopping illegal gun sales.)

But what about this Reno incident, where an obviously disturbed young man got a gun? If SB221 had been in effect, and if he’d been properly entered into the state’s database, he would have been prevented from buying a weapon, assuming the Reno police sergeant followed the law. Has the case prompted the governor to re-think his position?

Sandoval’s office declined my request for an interview.

Nobody — least of all Sandoval, a former attorney general and federal judge — wants felons or the mentally ill to get guns. But the fact remains, the governor had a chance to make it more difficult for that to happen, and he chose not to take it. And while this incident was resolved without tragedy or bloodshed, the next one may not be.

That’s why all of us — responsible gun owners, court officers, state lawmakers and yes, Gov. Sandoval — need to work together to fix this problem before the next Reno incident.

Jones’ bill is a good place to start.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or

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