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As Congress Mulls Gun Laws, Nevada Moves Forward

Semi-automatic assault-style rifles on display at a gun show in Chantilly, Va., in 2009.
Karen Bleier /AFP/Getty Images

Semi-automatic assault-style rifles on display at a gun show in Chantilly, Va., in 2009.

The nation is in shock after two weekends in a row were disrupted by mass shootings at public events in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

As of Monday afternoon, the combined death toll from all three was 34 people. The shooters in California and Ohio also died.

But these attacks are among the hundreds of mass shootings already recorded across the country in 2019 – one count shows more shootings than there have been days in the year so far.

On Monday, President Trump gave an address calling the massacres“domestic terrorism” and urging lawmakers to adopt red flag laws. But several gun safety laws have been tied up in Congress since before these three high profile attacks, including one that would mandate background checks for every firearm purchase across the country.

Nevada’s Legislature addressed many of the same measures during its last session, passing a red flag law as well as a bill that closes the private party loophole, which allows gun sales between private citizens without going through the background check process.

However, officials in California have criticized Nevada because the shooter at the Gilroy festival bought the firearm in Nevada and brought it across the state line.

He would not have been able to purchase the firearm in California.

Dr. Garen Wintemute is the director of Violence Prevention Research Institute at UC Davis Health. He told KNPR's State of Nevada that his research shows a spike in gun violence in California in the two weeks after Nevada gun shows.

Gun shows in California are more tightly regulated and are patrolled by undercover police officers. 

"It is well established by law enforcement that Nevada is one of the principal sources of guns used in crime in California," he said.

Wintemute was careful to say that doesn't mean Nevada gun shows cause violence in California.

"The spike coincided with the gun shows over time and that's the most important thing," he said, "The spike was limited to the parts of California that were closest to the shows. All of these sorts of things support an argument that the two are related."

The correlation between Nevada and California is widely known, he said. In fact, Wintemute said law enforcement watch for transfer of firearms between Northern Nevada and Northern California.

In addition, he said the problem is well-established in other parts of the country. There are 'hard' states that have enacted stricter gun laws next to 'easy' states that haven't.

It is precisely that issue that has many gun control advocates pushing for federal laws.

One of those proponents is State Senator Yvanna Cancela. She represents District 10 in Nevada.

"The patchwork of laws wherein one state there's more permissible and other states are less permissible laws, certainly Nevada-California's relationship is a good example, leads to situations like we saw where someone can purchase a gun in Nevada and carry out a massacre in California," she said.

Cancela would like to see one clear set of laws that govern the whole country. 

While gun control advocates would like to see one set of federal laws, those opposed to new legislation point out there is already plenty of laws on the books.

Sharon Oren is the owner of Maccabee Arms in Reno. He said he is allowed to sell long guns like rifles to Nevada residents 18 and over who pass a background check. 

He is allowed to sell handguns to people 21 and over, who pass a background check.

"All the laws already exist," Oren said, "But when was the last time we had an ATF task force by the federal government or our local agency whether it's Clark County, where the senator is from, whether it's Washoe County, where I am at, to actually go to a gun show and enforce said laws."

Oren also believes the bigger problem is the "mental situation" in the country.

"We're not raising our children anymore," he said, "Our children are being raised by the school system. They're being raised by standards. They're being raised by video games, by a lot of pressure, both parents have to work nonstop to bring bread to the table because of the cost of living."

Dr. Wintemute disputed the idea that mental illness is responsible for gun violence. 

"The research doesn't support the argument," he said, "What we know is that less than 5 percent of interpersonal violence, one against another, is primarily related to mental illness on the part of the perpetrator."

Wintemute said that mental health care in this country does need improvement but not because people who have a mental illness are going to be violent but because they are people who deserve care.

He also pointed out that while mass shootings grab headlines and shock the country, they account for only 1 percent of the firearm deaths in the country. 

In addition, mass shootings, Wintemute said, more often are associated with private events and are related to domestic violence. 

There are efforts in Nevada to address some of that type of violence. Cancela believes one of the most important was the passage of the background check that was approved by the voters in 2014 but was not enacted. 

The law requires a background check on private gun sales, including those at gun shows. 

Dr. Wintemute said research shows background checks do work to keep guns out the hands of people who shouldn't have them but there are flaws on the national level that need to be fixed.

"Something like a quarter of the prohibiting events that occur are never reported to federal agencies even when they're required to be reported, and by the way, in most cases, reporting is completely voluntary," he said.

Wintemute said shooters in Texas, South Carolina and Virginia Tech should not have been allowed to get firearms but their prohibitive behaviors were not reported. 

That loophole could be addressed in Nevada with the Red Flag Law. St. Senator Cancela explained that the law allows someone who is concerned that a person might harm themselves or others can ask the police to investigate and have that person's firearms removed with a court order.

"It was a big deal to the get that done here, because what we know is that more often than not before a person does something like what's happened over the weekend in Ohio, or certainly last week in California, they let folks know," she said.

While Cancela believes a variety of laws will prevent the kind of violence we've seen, Oren pointed out mass shooters, including the young man who killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, broke dozens of federal laws.

"Somebody who is planning to murder somebody does not care what law the senator or our governor or anybody else is going to be putting on the books," he said.

That being said, Oren wasn't completely opposed to having an open discussion about tackling the situation of gun violence in our country. 

"I do believe that first of all what we need to do is actually open a discussion, which is kind of hard to do these days, because it seems politically - there is the right wall and the left wall and we have people cringing to both walls with their fingernails and they do whatever they can to avoid walking on that hallway, which is made of beautiful hardwood floor that nobody is willing to walk on and step on it together." 

Dr. Garen Wintemute, Director, Violence Prevention Research Institute at UC Davis Health; State Senator Yvanna Cancela, D-10th District;  Sharon Oren, owner, Maccabee Arms;  Demar Dahl, commissioner, Elko County Board of Commissioners


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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.