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November 16, 2018

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Lone freshman senator shepherding gun bill through Nevada Legislature

While Congress and several state legislatures have recently held contentious and much-debated votes on gun control legislation, Nevada’s state Legislature has largely kept quiet.

Legislative leaders have pushed other causes, namely education, health and tax reform.

“We did a lot of gun legislation last time,” said Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas. “But we have to look at those (gun bills).”

Unlike other states, which have taken the ball on gun control in the wake of federal inaction, Nevada’s legislative leaders said they don’t believe they’ll get together to negotiate a bipartisan gun bill that would also have Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s blessings.

“As far as I know, there’s not an appetite,” said Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno. “Bills will be considered on their own merit.”

Instead, one freshman lawmaker is trying to shepherd a major gun control bill through the Legislature this year, despite the fact he has no experience guiding such a delicate, explosive bill through the legislative process.

“It’s important to a very large percentage of my constituents,” said Sen. Justin Jones, the bill’s sponsor. “That’s why I’m here, to represent the people of my district, whether I’m a freshman or veteran.”

Left to himself, he said he would just as soon have avoided such a divisive, “third rail” issue. He didn’t decide to sponsor legislation until a concerned member of his Mormon church approached him the weekend after the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut last December.

“A friend said, ‘Justin, what’re you going to do about this?’ I didn’t have an answer,” he said

So the newly elected Democrat from southwest Las Vegas filed Senate Bill 221. Following a winnowing process that’s seen the death of several gun-related bills, Jones now shoulders the burden of carrying the one major gun bill Democrats are hoping to pass this year.

Tacking as firmly to the political center as he can, Jones’ bill would expand background checks for private gun sales while restricting gun access to the mentally ill. Some estimates indicate that sales with no background check requirements comprise about 40 percent of all gun sales.

The lanky, 39-year-old attorney says he’s largely ambivalent to guns. He rides bicycles and runs marathons. He’s not a gun guy. But he’s seen mental illness firsthand.

The mental illnesses of several family members played a large role during Jones’ childhood in Utah.

Taking his church member’s question seriously, Jones said he sought out to solve a problem, not score political points.

“I started asking around,” he said, noting that he thought New York’s gun legislation overreached. “I wanted to fully understand this issue.”

He’s sat through multiple legislative hearings about gun violence and mental health, toured state facilities for the mentally ill, and dined at the Carson City IHOP where Eduardo Sencion killed four people and injured 14 more before shooting himself in the dead Sept. 6, 2011.

“I went and sat in the restaurant itself and talked to the people there who knew Eduardo,” he said.

While his bill ultimately passed out of committee on a 3-2 partisan vote, Jones has a Democratic poll that says 86 percent of Nevadans support background checks for gun sales and preventing people with a history of mental illness from purchasing guns. (A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a similar percentage of respondents favoring background checks.)

Meanwhile, legislators say they’ve been receiving “vile, threatening” emails about Jones’ and other legislators’ gun bills.

“While we’re accustomed to getting emails from people expressing displeasure, none of them rise to this level of, let’s just say unpleasant, discourse,” said Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, a Las Vegas Democrat whose own gun bill died this month.

Another legislator shared an email from a Nevadan angry about a separate gun bill. It began “hey, (expletive).”

“I’m going to keep pushing forward on my bill, and I’m hopeful that my colleagues will listen to their constituents, not just the emails, but the 86 percent who have repeatedly said they’d support background checks,” Jones said.

While an ironic bipartisan filibuster has killed federal gun legislation, Jones said he hopes Congress’ inability to get anything done will encourage his colleagues to pass his bill at the state level.

But without direct intervention from legislative leadership, Jones has been the chief lobbyist for his bill. He’s spoken with the governor’s chief of staff several times, and he said he’ll be talking with more Republicans in the coming weeks.

“I think there are prospects for support on the Republican side,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, dismissed the idea that Republicans would sign on to Jones’ bill.

“I don’t think Jones’ bill is going to come out bipartisan,” he said, noting that he’d welcome a conversation with Jones about the bill.

Meanwhile, Sandoval has said through a spokesperson’s email only that “he believes that individuals with mental illness should not have access to guns,” giving no indication that would either encourage or discourage passage of Jones’ bill.

Jones said he’s offered amendments to make concessions to Republican concerns, but he said he felt the compromise was “one way.”

Senate Bill 221 remains in committee as legislators work through other priorities first, which Jones said is fine.

“At the end of the day, education is the most important thing we’re doing up here,” he said.

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