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November 28, 2014

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Sen. Heller’s views on gun background checks are more complex than you think

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., second from left, accompanied by fellow Senate Republicans, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, where they discussed benefits to long-term jobless workers. From left are Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Heller, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind.

The conventional wisdom in Nevada politics is that Sen. Dean Heller doesn’t support expanding background checks for would-be gun owners.

The Nevada Republican calls himself a staunch gun rights supporter. He voted against legislation to expand gun safety laws after one of the nation’s worst mass shootings and since 2000 has been one of the top Senate Republican recipients of pro-gun campaign contributions.

The reality may be more nuanced than all that: Heller supports limited background checks, but he must walk a politically perilous tight rope in doing so.

“If there’s a way we can keep guns out of the hands of criminals and guns out of the hands of those that have mental issues … I would support that we would take a look at that under those circumstances,” Heller said in an interview in June shortly after the Las Vegas shooting of two Metro police officers.

He was responding to a question on whether he’d support Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.’s, calls to expand background checks.

Reid’s initiative hasn’t gone anywhere since, but guns are back in the news this week as Congress debates legislation to try to keep the weapons out of the hands of abusive dating partners and people with restraining orders.

Heller is one of three Republican senators signaled out in a small but made-to-shock ad that aired in Nevada on Tuesday urging voters to tell Heller to support the bill.

The gun safety group behind the ad, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s organization Everytown for Gun Safety, apparently believes that Nevadans would support a Heller switch on background checks and that greater gun legislation would benefit in Congress as a result.

Heller hasn’t taken a stance on the domestic violence bill, but based on his voting record alone, it would seem he doesn’t support any background checks.

Heller voted against legislation to expand background checks in April 2013, one of Congress’ only response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting where 20 elementary school children died.

He said he feared the bill could lead to the creation a national registry of gun owners, which he said would infringe upon the Second Amendment. He also voted against renewing an assault weapons ban and regulating high-capacity ammunition.

But even as Heller voted “no” for gun safety regulations in April, he said he’d vote yes to expand background checks under different circumstances.

“I believe very strongly that our current background check system needs strengthening and improving, particularly in areas that could keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill,” he said in a statement after the vote.

So Heller’s nuanced views on gun legislation mean he will continue to walk the politically sensitive line between supporting gun rights and keeping guns away from people he thinks shouldn’t have them.

“I just want to make sure that lawful citizens and lawful Americans have an opportunity to exercise their Second Amendment,” he said.

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