Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Advocates of gun control raked in $3.6 million over the last two years to place an initiative to tighten background checks for gun purchases and transfers in Nevada on the November ballot and ensure it passes.
The initiative is part of a broader national push to establish universal background check laws state by state after an effort to do so on the federal level failed in 2013. Mostly recently, Washington passed an expanded background check law through the ballot initiative process in 2014, and Oregon’s legislature approved a similar law last year.
In total, 18 states have enacted background check laws that go beyond what federal law requires. Nevada is poised to become the 19th.
Currently, Nevada requires mental health and criminal background checks for anyone purchasing guns from a licensed dealer. Unlicensed dealers at gun shows and others making private gun sales don’t have to run those checks.
Supporters of the initiative argue that’s a loophole giving felons, the mentally ill and others not legally allowed to purchase guns the ability to purchase them. Those opposed to the measure argue the law is too restrictive, preventing not only the sale but also the transfer of firearms between individuals.
The Nevada initiative would exempt the sale or transfer of firearms between immediate family members, temporary transfers in the event of imminent death or bodily harm and temporary transfers at a shooting range, while hunting or in the presence of the owner.
Gun advocates argue that the law restricts many otherwise harmless activities — such as lending a rifle to a friend to go hunting for the day or giving a gun to a co-worker for safekeeping while on vacation, both of which would be illegal.
The organization spearheading the initiative here, Nevadans for Background Checks, is an affiliate of and largely bankrolled by the national gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Of the $3.6 million in contributions to Nevadans for Background Checks over the last two years, $2.9 million came from Everytown.
Other early big ticket contributions in 2014 included $250,000 from Napster co-founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker and $150,000 from Washington venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, the top individual contributor supporting his state’s background check initiative.
Despite the national ties and national money flowing into the campaign, officials with Nevadans for Background Checks say the campaign is a local movement, spurred by Gov. Brian Sandoval’s 2013 veto of a bill that would have mandated checks on third-party sales.
“Everytown has provided some of the seed money for our organization and is a national partner,” campaign manager Joe Duffy said. “But, like I said, this is a Nevada campaign.”
As evidence of local support, the group points to the 250,000 signatures it received to get the initiative on the ballot — almost double the requirement — and some of the smaller contributions they have received that are not required to be itemized on campaign finance documents. The group collected more than 1,200 smaller donations of $500 or less from “grassroots contributors” in 2014 and more than 1,300 “unitemized donors” in 2015.
The biggest sums of local money pouring into the campaign come from Wynn Resorts and Caesar’s Enterprise Services, which donated $50,000 and $25,000, respectively, to the cause in 2015. (Myra Greenspun, wife of Brian Greenspun, the owner and publisher of Greenspun Media Group, donated $11,000 to the group in 2015.)
The organization also lists a number of prominent Nevadans on its advisory board, which is chaired by Elaine Wynn, co-founder of Wynn Resorts. Her name tops a list of almost 50 supporters of the initiative, including former U.S. Reps. Steven Horsford and Shelley Berkley; Steve Wynn; and Jan Jones Blackhurst, former Las Vegas mayor and Caesars executive vice president. Other supporters include religious leaders, law enforcement officials and advocates against domestic violence.
Nevadans for Background Checks spent almost $2 million to get the initiative on the ballot by fall 2014. Since then, they’ve spent $800,000 on campaign expenses, much of that on strategic communication and campaign organizing. Most of their efforts revolve around hosting house parties, phone banking events and rallies.
The organization has been organizing and fundraising in preparation for a “well-funded opposition,” Duffy said.
But that opposition has yet to put up a fight of the same magnitude.
The NRA has provided $43,000 in direct contributions and donation of resources to NRA Nevadans for Freedom, one of the official organizations registered to oppose the ballot initiative in the state and an NRA affiliate. Another group — Nevadans for State Gun Rights, affiliated with the Nevada Firearms Coalition — hasn’t received any contributions high enough to be reported to the state, though the coalition’s president, Don Turner, said the group had received “smaller grassroots amounts.”
Most of the NRA funds were directed toward printing and advertising costs, while Nevadans for State Gun Rights spent $16,000 on a public relations firm to help with messaging.
“We’re relying on our members in Nevada and some field representatives,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said. “It’ll be an old-fashioned campaign, grassroots.”
The NRA will appeal to the “libertarian sense of the state,” Mortensen said.
One step the NRA has taken was a Snapchat geofilter it paid for during the December Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas. The filter read, “Hey Bloomberg! Don’t NYC my Nevada gun rights. Stand and fight with NRA.” Geofilters are special graphic overlays that Snapchat users can add to their photos and that can only be used in certain geographic locations
The numbers show an imbalance in contributions and expenditures between proponents and opponents of universal background checks. Both the NRA and local gun advocates anticipate being outspent by supporters of expanded background checks, as they were in Washington by about 6 to 1.
“For us to think that we’re going to outspend them, we might as well go smoke a little marijuana and give up,” Turner said.
Turner added that he thought there was a “good chance” the ballot measure would pass, but that he and other members of his group would not give up without “a Herculean effort” to oppose it.
Still, it’s only January and for this early on in the race, political observers don’t think the imbalance of funds is surprising or indicative of how the next several months will play out.
“(The NRA is) probably going to keep an eye on it, see what the polling looks like, how much traction is Everytown getting here,” UNLV political science professor David Damore said. “Basically, groups judge how competitive it’s going to be. If they think it doesn’t have any chance, they won’t fight it.”
Damore projects that opponents of the initiative have until late summer to gauge the temperature on the issue, see whether candidates seize on it, and wait for polls to roll in.
“There’s that game of cat and mouse here,” Damore said. “Wealthy groups will force the opposition to spend.”