Initiative may be the way to get background checks on the books

Unless you’re prepared to argue that all gun-purchase background checks are illegal under the Second Amendment, you have no reason to oppose the latest initiative petition filed in Nevada.

And if you are prepared to make that argument, you’re going to lose under the crushing weight of U.S. Supreme Court precedent that upholds the system we’ve designed to make it more difficult for felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill to legally purchase firearms.

Otherwise, you’ll have to acknowledge reality: The Background Check Initiative simply extends the requirement that licensed firearms dealers run a check on potential gun buyers to all gun sales and transfers in Nevada, including private-party sales. (There are exceptions for sales between family members and temporary transfers for shooting events, gun ranges and hunting.)

The initiative — filed with the support of Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, a PAC that includes former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns — closely mirrors a background check bill that was passed by the 2013 Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

In fact, the initiative seems written to address most of Sandoval’s objections. It eliminates the background check requirements for family members. It doesn’t create additional legal burdens for people who let others use their guns temporarily. And it doesn’t contain a two-year prohibition on gun ownership for first-offense violators.

Why, if Sandoval (who earned 90 percent of the vote in this month’s Republican gubernatorial primary) were savvy, he’d embrace the initiative now and promise to sign it should it qualify and come before the 2015 Legislature. He’d easily replace any hard-core gun-rights supporters who’d defect over the issue with independent voters who support background checks.

But don’t think passing the initiative is going to happen without controversy. The Nevada Firearms Coalition Political Action Committee responded to the petition with the thoughtful, well-reasoned approach for which the group is well-known. “URGENT NEVADA FIREARMS ALERT,” was the header on an email sent to supporters. “We just got word that Michael Bloomberg is back in Nevada with all his money, trying to force a ballot initiative to require background checks on ALL firearms transfers, and the creation of a Nevada gun registration program,” the “ALERT” reads.

First, it’s not Bloomberg’s money that the coalition doesn’t like; after all, they’re perfectly comfortable with money from the National Rifle Association washing over the gunwales in tsunami-like volume. It’s the political philosophy behind the money that’s the issue.

Second, the initiative does not require a background check on “ALL” firearms transfers. But if the background checks conducted in gun stores by licensed dealers are legal (they are) and don’t offend the Second Amendment (they don’t), then why is extending them to private-party sales such a big deal? Is there some other reason responsible gun owners (and I am one) would want to ignore a category of unregulated gun sales?

Third, there is no gun-registration program created by the bill, unless you’re talking about the records kept by gun dealers, which is standard operating policy now with sales that take place in stores. Again, we’re simply extending existing rules to all gun sales, nothing more. (Oh, by the way: Clark County does have an existing program that requires handgun registration with the Metropolitan Police Department. This is also longtime practice and perfectly legal.)

The only real question that remains now is, how will this idea become law? Will the petitioners gather the required signatures and lay the initiative before the 2015 Legislature, and watch as lawmakers approve it? Will Gov. Brian Sandoval sign it? Or will it be ignored by the Legislature and go to the voters in 2016, and pass then? Or will it be defeated, causing the process to begin anew?

Because make no mistake: Whether it’s the Legislature and the governor or the people themselves, this common-sense, long-overdue idea will become law in Nevada, and, eventually, the United States. It’s simply a matter of when.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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