Las Vegas Sun

December 7, 2023

Stalled 2016 gun buyer measure headed to Nevada high court


John Locher / AP

In this Jan. 19, 2016, file photo, handguns are displayed at a trade show in Las Vegas.

Updated Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 | 6:19 p.m.

Backers of a voter-approved gun buyer screening initiative that passed in November 2016 but was never enacted have filed notice they'll ask the Nevada Supreme Court to overrule a judge who decided the measure was fatally flawed and could not be enforced.

The state high court should side with voters who chose to close what proponents of the measure call a legal loophole that lets gun purchasers skip background screenings when buying from another person or online, attorney Tami Cowden said Thursday. Twenty states have similar laws, she said.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval declined through his spokeswoman to respond to the Wednesday court filing alleging that he and state Attorney General Adam Laxalt failed to follow the will of the voters.

Sandoval, a two-term Republican, and Laxalt, the GOP candidate running to replace him this November, opposed the initiative, Question 1, before it passed two years ago by a narrow 1 percent margin.

Laxalt issued a statement calling the appeal frivolous.

Cowden and attorney Mark Ferrario, who argued the case in state court, accused the governor and attorney general of scuttling the law with half-hearted requests for the FBI to take responsibility for background checks from the state Department of Public Safety.

Nevada is one of 12 states that processes criminal background checks for gun sales.

Sandoval maintained the state screenings are more thorough than federal checks because they include buyer mental health and criminal records relating to domestic violence, misdemeanor crimes, arrest reports and restraining orders.

Laxalt issued a legal opinion saying the initiative impossibly required the governor to have the FBI expend federal resources to enforce a state law. The FBI said it would not do so, he said.

Initiative proponents said the Nevada Background Check Act would tighten requirements and stop "felons, domestic abusers and other people with dangerous histories" from buying guns from unlicensed sellers.

They sued to enforce the initiative just days after 58 people were killed and more than 800 were injured last Oct. 1 in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history on the Las Vegas Strip.

Proponents conceded the measure would not have prevented the Las Vegas gunman from legally obtaining the assault-style weapons he used.

But they said it could help keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them by increasing the number of buyers required to undergo background checks.

Clark County District Court Judge Joe Hardy Jr., who Sandoval appointed to the bench in 2015, ruled last month the measure did not specify how the governor was supposed to enforce it.

"Question 1 was defectively drafted," Hardy said, "and ... since the FBI will not enforce the law, the law is unenforceable."