6 April 2023
A trio of bills seeking to prevent gun violence through new restrictions on access to firearms sparked backlash from Second Amendment proponents and brought out stark partisan disagreements among Democratic backers and Republican opponents.
The bills, heard Thursday in a rare joint meeting of the Assembly and Senate judiciary committees, propose prohibiting access to certain semi-automatic firearms to those under 21 years of age, criminalizing possession of guns near polling locations, cleaning up state law banning “ghost guns” and restricting access to guns for those convicted of a hate crime.
But those measures face a steep hill to becoming law — Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo promised on his campaign website to “veto any legislation” that would take away the “right to build a firearm for personal use.” He also said he “supports the right of all law-abiding citizens to own a firearm if they so choose.” Republican lawmakers have also expressed an unwillingness to support such policies.
A representative from the governor’s office declined to give details on the governor’s stance on the measures, saying, “we’ll monitor all bills as they work through the legislative process and engage when we feel necessary.”
Proponents of the trio of gun control regulations said they had not had “direct discussions” with the governor about the measures, but said the legislation is a “common sense approach” that should be supported by everyone.
“This is something we should not try and wheel and deal on. The lives of Nevadans are not a bargaining chip,” Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) said during a press conference Thursday before the hearing. “I’m confident that the governor wants to protect Nevadans just like we do. We’re going to offer him a couple of options that will do exactly that.”
During the press conference, gun violence prevention advocates joined Democratic lawmakers to voice support for the legislation. That included Ben Tucker, a retired math teacher and survivor of the 2013 Sparks Middle School shooting.
“We heard a loud boom. A 13-year-old student who had brought his father’s handgun to school had just shot another student in the shoulder. My life changed forever in the next few moments,” Tucker said, before describing witnessing his friend shot by the student. “The terror I faced that day, I still face every day.”
Ben Tucker, retired math teacher and survivor of the 2013 Sparks Middle School shooting, at a press conference with Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) in support of new gun control legislation at the legislature in Carson City on Thursday, April 6, 2023. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)
What the bills do
AB355, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas), would raise the legal age for purchase or possession of semi-automatic shotguns and rifles from 18 to 21, and criminalize possession of such weapons for those under 21. The bill also proposes penalizing anyone who aids or permits someone younger than 21 years old to possess such a weapon.
Jauregui, a survivor of the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, noted that six of the nine deadliest mass shootings in the United States since 2018 were committed by people under the age of 21. Proponents also noted that it would align the minimum age for purchasing semi-automatic weapons with the minimum age requirement for purchasing a handgun, which is already limited to those 21 and older.
“Right now a resident of Nevada can purchase an AR-15 at the age of 18, but not a handgun,” Olivia Li, legal counsel for Everytown for Gun Safety, said during the hearing.
Republican lawmakers raised concerns that the bill would violate the Second Amendment rights of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, pointing to a federal court’s decision to strike down a California law restricting the ability of 18- to 20-year-olds to purchase rifles. But Li countered, pointing to Florida’s ban on gun sales to those under 21, which was ruled constitutional by a different federal court.
In response to a question raised by Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Henderson) about why 18-year-olds should be restricted from possessing such firearms despite being allowed to serve in the military, Jauregui said the age restriction would not be applied to members of the Armed Forces or those honorably discharged prior to turning 21.
AB354 — also sponsored by Jauregui — would criminalize bringing a gun within 100 yards of an election site. Any violation would be a gross misdemeanor, except in the case that someone knowingly brings a gun with the intent to disrupt or interfere with election administration, vote counting or a person attempting to vote — which would be a category D felony punishable by up to four years in prison.
Those election sites covered by the bill include not only polling places, but also vote-counting facilities and ballot drop boxes. The prohibition would not apply to law enforcement or private security hired by poll sites, nor would it affect guns being stored in cars, homes or businesses within the 100-yard buffer — so long as those guns are not being brandished.
The provisions come as state Democrats have increasingly raised concerns over threats against election workers in the wake of Republican challenges to election legitimacy beginning in 2020.
Jauregui’s AB354 would also seek to clean up legal definitions of “unfinished frame or receiver” as part of the state’s attempt to ban so-called “ghost guns,” untraceable firearms without serial numbers. Passed in 2021 as AB286, the measure was shortly after challenged in state court, where gun manufacturers argued that the definition of “unfinished receiver” was too vague.
A district court judge later agreed, ruling in December 2021 that the original language was unconstitutional, in part because the bill created no clear standard to enforce the law. The case is still being appealed, however, and only saw oral arguments in front of the Nevada Supreme Court early last month.
Jauregui told reporters Thursday that the language in the bill aligns with federal regulations regarding “ghost guns” and would allow for full implementation of the 2021 bill — a move that would restrict the business of one of the nation’s most prolific manufacturers of “ghost guns,” Dayton-based Polymer80.
SB171, a bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), would prohibit a person from purchasing, owning or possessing any firearm if the person had been convicted of committing or attempting to commit a hate crime in the past 10 years. Harris said Justice Department data shows that more than 10,000 people are victims of hate crimes involving a firearm annually.
“From people of color to the LGBTQ community, we’ve seen a rise in hate crimes over the past few years — and that is not to mention our AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community partners and the level and increase of hate crimes that we’ve seen targeting them as well,” Harris said. “It is absolutely time to make sure that we protect these groups and prioritize their safety.”
Jauregui has worked through her legislative career to pass gun safety regulations while enacting safe storage laws and universal background checks. During the hearing, she said surviving the horror of gun violence forced her to take action aimed at turning grief into positive change.
“Almost six years later, there’s still a part of me that was stolen,” she said. “But the reality is the horror of gun violence, and the luck of being a survivor has forced me to take action.”
Responses to the proposed legislation
The Assembly Republican Caucus moved swiftly to denounce the legislation and hearing, stating Wednesday that every one of its caucus members would vote against Jauregui’s bills, AB354 and AB355.
“A criminal intent on committing violent crimes will not be stopped by this law,” the caucus wrote in a statement Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the Nevada State Democratic Party slammed the Republican response, saying, “Nevada Republicans will always put the gun lobby over childrens’ safety.”
Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar said he was thankful to Jauregui for bringing forward the bill aimed at protecting election sites.
“Our elections only work because of the people who run them. In recent years, election workers and voters have felt threatened when all they wanted to do was their job or their civic duty,” Aguilar wrote in an email to The Nevada Independent. “We need to look at all of the options for ensuring our elections are conducted safely.”
During the hearing, members of the public provided hours of testimony in support and opposition to the bills. That included concerned parents and survivors of gun violence, who pointed to firearms as a leading cause of death among American children and calling for greater regulation to protect public safety.
In opposition, a representative of the National Rifle Association (NRA) argued the prohibition on semi-automatic firearms for those under 21 would be “unconstitutional” and described it as “age discrimination against those under 21.”
Daniel Reid, Western regional director for the National Rifle Association (NRA), testifies in opposition to AB355, which would raise the legal age for purchase or possession of semi-automatic shotguns and rifles from 18 to 21 at the legislature in Carson City on Thursday, April 6, 2023. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)
Others in opposition included representatives of the Republican Party, several veterans and members of the public, who said the law would not effectively reduce gun violence and the state should be protecting gun rights, not limiting them.
In a separate hearing Wednesday, Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) presented a bill (SB294) meant to strengthen the state’s firearm storage laws and restrict children’s access to guns that may be left unattended at home.
It would require that gun dealers include a locking device capable of securing a firearm with every sale or transfer of a gun. Doñate noted that “as of 2021, 11 states have passed laws involving firearm locking devices at the point of sale.”
John Jones, a lobbyist for the Clark County District Attorney’s Office who testified in support of the bill, said that in the last few years, 10 children in Clark County have died “in situations that we can directly trace back to improperly stored firearms.”
“We’ve had many other children who have been injured due to improperly stored firearms. Failing to properly store a firearm can lead and does lead to fatal and life-altering consequences for our children,” Jones said. “And the firearms obtained by these children have been located in unlocked nightstands, literally stored in shoes, vehicle glove boxes and otherwise left out in the open, and children end up dead.”
The push to increase firearm storage safety also follows a 2019 law (AB291) that made it a crime to negligently store a firearm in a location that the person knows could pose a risk to a child. Doñate’s bill preserves that language regarding negligent storage.
Under a proposed amendment to the bill, school police departments would also be required to provide training for their officers to perform active assailant response.
“We believe that these are common sense reforms that can reduce the prevalence of firearms being brought to schools onto campus,” Doñate said.
Reporter Jacob Solis contributed to this report.
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