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Bill closing gun background check loophole advances at Nevada Legislature

Updated Tuesday, May 21, 2013 | 3:20 p.m.

For Neil Heslin, a construction worker from Newtown, Conn., it’s not difficult to talk about his brave and loving son, Jesse.

Getting up to testify in front of lawmakers to pass gun control legislation to make it more difficult for weapons to make it into the hands of criminals and the mentally ill? That’s a different story.

“It’s easy to talk about him and his memory,” Heslin said in a brief interview at the Legislature. “But talking to lawmakers? Testifying? That’s not easy.”

Heslin’s son Jesse and 19 of his classmates died Dec. 14, when a man walked into their elementary school and began shooting.

Since then, Heslin has become a fixture in the gun control debate that has been waged state by state and before Congress.

Today, he arrived in Carson City with other gun control advocates who have lost family members in the recent spate of mass shootings across the country. The cadre of advocates, organized by Mayors Against Gun Violence, walked the halls of the Nevada Legislature hoping their stories will convince on-the-fence Nevada lawmakers to back a bill—Senate Bill 221-- that closes the background check loophole and tightens requirements for reporting the mentally ill to the national database used for such checks.

Heslin and other advocates failed to convince the U.S. Senate to pass a background checks law earlier this year, a vote that he says still “disgusts me.”

“It’s sad to me to see this turned into a political game,” Heslin said. “Any lawmaker, anyone who is human, knows something needs to change to prevent anything like this from happening again.”

Moments after Heslin and his fellow advocates arrived in Carson City, the Senate Finance Committee passed SB 211 in a party line vote. It now heads to the Senate floor, where it almost certainly will face a pitched partisan battle.

Republicans on the Finance Committee objected to the measure, arguing it creates a “de facto gun registry” by requiring private individuals who want to sell guns to go to a federally licensed dealer to perform a background check on the buyer.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson complained the measure does nothing to address “straw purchases,” an activity that is already explicitly illegal under federal law in which a straw of buying a gun for a person who wouldn’t qualify.

“Trying to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them, that’s a no brainer,” Roberson said. “But it’s important not to just pass a bill to say that we passed a bill. We want it to be effective.”

Roberson questioned how it would be enforced.

Sen. Justin Jones, D-Las Vegas, said the enforcement question is simple: If a gun owner sells a firearm without doing a background check “a crime has been committed and law enforcement could investigation.”

Jones, who has almost single-handedly pushed this issue in the Legislature, has repeatedly amended the bill after working to address concerns from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Jones bristled when Roberson challenged him to make it a “truly bipartisan bill” by working with him to include several major changes to the measure.

“My door is always open and (Roberson) hasn’t ever set foot in my door,” Jones said.

Jones, who represents a district almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, is a top target in next year’s election as Republicans seek to take back the majority in the Senate.

He said he hoped that isn’t driving the Republican opposition to his bill.

“I hope they don’t make it a caucus effort just to not give me or the Democrats a win,” he said. “It’s not about me, its about the kids. I don’t want blood on my hands if this bill goes down and another shooting happens because no background checks were in place. I stood up. I did my part. I hope my colleagues do the same.”

This story has been edited to correct the bill number.

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