Wednesday, April 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford’s history with guns is intensely personal.
Anyone who paid attention to his recent bid to represent Nevada’s 4th Congressional District knows that one of his most formative experiences came at age 19, when his father was killed in an act of gun violence.
And anyone who was listening to Horsford in the wake of December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — a galvanizing event in the gun control debate — knows Horsford promised to back an assault weapons ban in Congress. The children who had been killed with a semiautomatic rifle in Newtown were the approximate age of his daughter, Ella, he noted at the time.
“I come at this not as an elected official but as a parent,” Horsford told the Sun two weeks before being sworn in as a U.S. Congressman.
But since taking on his elected role, Horsford has repeatedly and noticeably tempered that personal conviction, suggesting his mind is not made up about the more controversial points of gun control legislation, such as an assault weapons ban.
“As a parent I have a personal viewpoint on military-style weapons not being in our neighborhoods,” Horsford said in a recent interview at his congressional office. “As a policymaker, it is my job to listen to my constituents and then vote on the legislation that comes before us to represent the view that I’ve heard from my constituents.”
Horsford, as he has often noted, represents one of the most diverse congressional districts in the country — the newly created 4th Congressional District, which encompasses areas as disparate as the worst crime-ravaged neighborhoods of North Las Vegas and the most remote rural enclaves of the state.
Balancing those constituencies has required Horsford to do a lot of “listening and learning.”
But in his first 100 days as a representative, it seems there are few issues that have posed as much of a political challenge — or forced him to phrase his public comments quite as carefully — as gun control.
Horsford disputes this idea. He argued, in an interview, that gun control is hardly as controversial as it seems.
“Eighty-seven percent of my district supports universal background checks,” Horsford said. “The fact that 40 percent of guns today are purchased without any background checks should really scare all of us, particularly when individuals with criminal backgrounds, violent felonies and serious mental illnesses would use that route as a way to get a gun, any type of gun. So to close that loophole … that is a major step forward and one that I think should not be understated.”
Momentum is building in the Senate around a proposal to require background checks for all firearm sales, except those conducted privately between friends or acquaintances. While more expansive options will likely be voted on in the next week, it is not likely that the requisite 60 senators will be willing to support them. That makes it even less likely that the Republican-led House will elect to consider such options down the line.
In the end, such circumstances may let Horsford off the hook from having to take a vote that would force him, as he put it, “to do some soul-searching and make sure that I am both honoring my job as the representative without selling out my personal convictions.”
On gun control, it’s not clear that there is an easy balance to strike, save for on enhanced background checks.
“Part of what I’ve experienced listening to people in my district, particularly in the rural communities, is ‘respect my right to own a gun. I live in a community where I may not have police or law enforcement protection for 30, 60, 100 miles, and I need to be able to protect myself … and I have the right to do that,’” Horsford said. “And I agree, and respect that right, and have said without wavering that that is a right that we have to respect in this process.”
Horsford tells of some Republican, National Rifle Association-member constituents who he says, once they realize he respects their Second Amendment rights, are willing to talk about getting some of the higher magazine clips and semiautomatic rifles off the streets.
But, he admits, he also has several other constituents for whom “listening to them and then voting for a ban is not going to make them feel any better.”
“I’m honestly, in the core of my job as a public servant, trying to represent the needs of all my constituents,” he said. “I take it very seriously that my job … is to represent my constituents. Not some of my constituents. Not the ones I agree with only. My job is to represent the whole district.”
That leaves Horsford in a political place that falls short of his personal convictions.
But Horsford is used to operating in such situations.
One apposite example hearkens from Horsford’s first turn as leader of the state Senate, when he presided over the Legislature’s recognition of civil unions in Nevada. While he cheered the creation of domestic partnership rights, it fell short of his personal support for affording gay and lesbian couples full marriage rights.
“The work we did on civil unions was historic at the time. … There was a lot of work that went into getting that much done, let alone the marriage equality, which is being advanced now,” Horsford said. “Unless you’ve got the votes, you can only achieve what you can collectively get a majority to agree to.”
In Congress, Horsford said, addressing issues such as gun control also require the conciliatory attitude that perfect can’t stand in the way of good.
“All of the constituents, they’ve said: 'Work together to get things done. Get something done,'” Horsford said.
After all, he said, if he wants Republicans to work with him, he’s going to have to work with them. And there are limits to what only one of 435 representatives — and at that, a freshman in the minority party — can do.
“I have always spoken clearly, regardless of what area of the district I’m in, that as a parent of three kids and as a person who lost my father to a gunshot, I believe that military-style weapons should not be in our neighborhoods. I have not changed that view,” Horsford said. “But you know, my father wasn’t shot by an assault weapon. He was shot by a rifle.
“I don’t know whether the guy who killed him had a background check or not. But I know that if we pass this bill going forward that only people who are legally authorized to have a gun after going through a background check will be permitted to do so, and that I believe is what our Second Amendment right is all about.
“So yeah. I will feel very good about being able to move a background check as a meaningful step toward a culture of safety.”