Support for background checks broad, deep

There was a pained voice that spoke from a place of unfathomable loss, and another that offered common-sense statistical analysis.

There was former Sheriff Bill Young, an avid hunter who carried a weapon every day of his nearly three-decade police career. His tone was tempered by a cop’s experience.

Some of their words were hard to hear above the din of suspiciously revving engines, but the broad collection of concerned citizens managed to deliver their message recently outside the Clark County Election Center about the need for expanded background checks on gun purchases in Nevada.

Critics called the gathering a media photo-op, and they were right. It drew its share of reporters and television cameras. It also attracted a small counterprotest by citizens carrying signs about the constitutional sanctity of the right to keep and bear arms and the fact that criminals are in the business of not following laws.

But a vast and diverse chorus of citizens supports expanding background checks to include those who get around the spirit of the law when they purchase weapons on the Internet and at gun shows without a background check.

When members of Nevadans For Background Checks converged on the Cheyenne Avenue election center, they brought with them nearly 250,000 signatures — more than twice the number necessary to qualify its initiative for the 2016 ballot statewide.

The initiative drive was no surprise. In the form of Senate Bill 221, the issue already had passed the 2013 Legislature. Before vetoing that thoroughly reasonable bill, Gov. Brian Sandoval called it a further “erosion of Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights.”

His words sounded like they came more from a man on the rise politically than the state’s former attorney general. Then again, otherwise reasonable elected officials across the country commonly have their good sense betray them when it comes to standing up to the American gun lobby.

Sandoval’s veto might have won him plaudits with the National Rifle Association, but polls indicate he went against the wishes of most Nevadans. A 2013 Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner poll tracked Nevadans’ support of universal background checks at 86 percent. A Survey USA poll sponsored by KLAS-TV 8 pegged the figure at 76 percent.

That’s overwhelming support. And the initiative has picked up some high-profile support.

Lisa Lynn Chapman of Safe Nest domestic violence center spoke of the 38 percent drop in intimate partner homicides that has followed expanded background checks in other areas of the country.

Young’s presence was especially compelling. He approaches the issue from the experience of seeing the devastating impact of irresponsible gun ownership on society. He called expanding the law “a step in the right direction.” A reasonable screening measure that makes it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to purchase guns just makes good sense, he said.

Neil Heslin, whose son was murdered in the shooting spree in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, provided a soft-spoken but devastating testimonial to the impact of gun violence and the failure of the system to keep weapons from the hands of the mentally unstable. He admitted the task is difficult.

But, given the stakes involved, how can society stand silently amid the continuing carnage?

Canvassers gathered signatures from all 17 counties. They received support not only from Clark County but from rural areas as well. Most Nevadans appear to understand that their libertarian traditions aren’t being threatened.

Growing numbers, in fact, see the proliferation of firearms and irresponsible ownership as posing a public health crisis — one that somehow gets eclipsed in the press by things like the recent Ebola scare.

One of the most articulate voices belonged to Daniel Hernandez, who rendered assistance to Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she was struck in the head during a mass shooting Jan. 8, 2011, near Tucson. The shooting killed six and injured 13. Then an intern in Giffords’ office, Hernandez carries the painful experience with him, and 18 months ago he decided to join the universal background checks movement.

He was in Carson City in 2013 when SB 221 rose and fell before the governor’s veto.

“This time we’re not going to let elected officials, who have suffered from political cowardice in a lot of cases, decide what’s going to happen,” said Hernandez, who grew up in a family of hunters and remains a Second Amendment advocate. “That’s why we’re taking it to the voters.”

Perhaps in 2016 the voters’ voices will at last be heard.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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