Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2018

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Analysis:

Why Heller’s response to school safety question was meaningful

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Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Through most of what amounted to a campaign appearance Tuesday in Las Vegas, Sen. Dean Heller was able to sail smoothly.

Speaking at a Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon, he expressed support for the Interstate 11 project, said he’d keep fighting the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository to help protect the Las Vegas tourism industry and economy, and touted the GOP’s tax cuts and regulatory reforms for helping stimulate Nevada’s economy.

Pro-business themes to a business audience. So far, so good.

But then came the last few minutes of his presentation, and a question about school safety.

Uh-oh.

With that question, Heller found himself facing one of his trickiest challenges politically in his bid to hold onto his seat.

His dilemma: He needs to appeal to NRA supporters to increase his chances of winning the June 12 primary, but he runs a risk in going too far. Should he win the primary, he’ll need to get votes from moderate Republicans and right-leaning Democrats in a state that narrowly voted to expanded background checks on gun purchases in 2016. Coming off as too gun happy during the primary would be a liability.

So Heller’s response to the question said a lot about his political calculations on the issue. He touted his support for a measure to help keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people — seemingly a nod to moderate voters — and for an increase in federal grants available to schools for security measures.

That narrative wasn’t false. Heller supported the Fix NICS Act, which was aimed at beefing up the federal database of individuals who aren’t allowed to legally possess weapons, and the beefed up school grants.

But if anyone in his audience came away with the impression that Heller had stood up to the NRA on the issue, they were mistaken.

The NRA supported the NCIS measure — the acronym stands for National Instant Criminal Background Check System — so Heller wasn’t risking his A rating from the NRA in backing it.

It’s also important to note that despite perceptions to the contrary, the NCIS act wasn’t a measure to expand background checks and close the loophole that allows sales between private individuals to happen without vetting. The ballot measure that was approved by Nevada voters in 2016 aimed at doing just that on sales in the state, but its implementation has been held up because federal officials have resisted performing the expanded checks, as would be required under the wording of the measure.

Federal lawmakers have rejected calls for universal background checks, including Heller, who voted against an expansion measure in 2013.

Heller has been opposed to several other gun safety measures, as well, including sales of high-capacity magazines.

You don’t get an A rating from the NRA for nothing. Whether that’s an asset or a curse for Heller is one of the key questions surrounding his campaign.