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COVID Concerns Limit Access At The Legislature

Lawmakers had to pass a lot of bills ahead of a legislative deadline on Tuesday.

Bills, unless granted exemptions, had to pass out of their first chamber, meaning the chamber they were first introduced in, before Tuesday.

Ultimately about 150 bills made it through.

There were some bills that didn’t make but they weren’t any of the big banner issues. For instance, a bill that would have changed how people register off-road vehicles and one that would’ve required beekeepers to register didn’t get passed out of their house of origin.

Many of the bills that did make through did so because they were sent to money committees like Ways and Means or the Budgetary Committee.

An example is Assembly Bill 116 that is the bill that decriminalizes traffic stops in the state was sent to a budget committee. Sometimes bills that go to the money committees are left to die.

Ways and Means has reputation for being a graveyard for legislation that the parties don’t want to deal with on the floor.

In the case of the traffic stop bill, moving it to a money committee is more legitimate because it was amended with new fiscal notes during the legislative bonanza on Tuesday.

One big thing that happened was the ghost guns ban was approved by the Assembly on a party-line vote.

Ghost guns are unregistered incomplete firearms that are sold without a serial number and background checks.

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives only considers the receiver or the frame if you're talking about handguns to be the firearm, and the bureau only considers that piece to be complete if it’s more than 80 percent machined or manufactured.

It is considered a loophole because a company can get a receiver, up to 80 percent complete, and then sell it online, through a retailer or at a gun show without having to treat it like a regular firearm.

Advocates say it has become easier and easier for people to take that incomplete piece and make it into a gun. The easiness of getting and assembling a ghost gun has been linked to the rising prevalence of this type of weapon being found at crime scenes.

ATF says in 2019 law enforcement agencies around the country recovered about 10,000 of these weapons and that’s significant because this is a relatively new phenomenon. Ghost guns have been around for a while, but they’re easier and easier to complete.

The ghost gun bill was amended before the vote.

Originally, it would have strengthened enforcement for gun-free zones in private businesses but that was removed.

Opponents said it violated the rights of conceal-carry weapon holders.

The sponsor of the bill, Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, said the discussion on that part of the bill remains open.

“It was clear that Assembly Bill 286 wasn’t the vehicle for that portion of the bill,” she said, “But we’re still committed to working with stakeholders and my colleagues because this discussion isn’t over. I think we have a big responsibility to the thousands and thousands of employees who work on the Strip every day, they’re entitled to a safe workplace. And the over 40 million visitors who come and visit us every year, they’re entitled to a safe place to come and visit.

Jauregui seems confident the private company gun-free zone part of the bill will come up in this session again. This concept has some heavy hitters behind it. For instance, John McManus, the Executive Vice President at MGM Resorts International, helped present this bill in its first hearing.

Assemblywoman Jauregui is a survivor of the October First mass shooting on the Strip. This concept of strengthening the rights of businesses to have a gun-free zone that really speaks to a part of what enabled that tragedy to occur.  

Under the part of the bill that was passed, a big manufacturer of ghost guns in Northern Nevada called Polymer80 would be required to add serial numbers to all their products and run background checks on buyers.

They do sell some fully completed firearms, and they are sold through a network of gun shops. Those have to go through a background check if they’re sold in Nevada and they come with serial numbers.

As it stands now, Polymer80 is able to sell lower-frame assemblies for Glock-style handguns without serial numbers. Those kits would have to be serialized and they would be treated as regular firearms if the bill passes and is signed into law.

Another bill that is being considered would allow police officers to blur the faces of cops in body camera video. It was proposed by Senator Nicole Cannizzaro. It would essentially expand what is called the Peace Officers Bill of Rights.

They are making the argument that footage generated by police is confidential because it shows the identities of the officers involved in a given interaction. Supporters of the bill want to blur the faces so the officers can’t be identified.

The Peace Officers Bill of Rights is a suite of legislation that enshrines a lot of protections for police. 

Opponents say body cameras are public records, and that police, who are public employees, need to be held accountable.

The ACLU of Nevada is saying if police officers’ faces are blurred it is going to be hard to identify when an officer has a pattern of misconduct.

Senator Cannizzaro is the Senate Majority Leader and she holds a lot of sway in her chamber. There are a fair number of prosecutors among the Democrats in the statehouse, which could help the bill's chances of making it.

The bill does come at an interesting time where there is a lot of conversations happening around police and criminal justice reform.

Since the beginning of the session in February, the Legislature building has been closed to the public over concerns about spreading COVID-19.

The building recently partially reopened, but some advocates say it really hasn’t changed much.

“I don’t think that the barriers to participate in the state legislative session have been lifted, simply because lobbyists are now able to enter the building,” said Leo Murrieta, executive director for Make the Road Nevada, which organizes on behalf of Nevada’s Latinx and immigrant community.

His point is that it’s still really difficult to advocate in person because an organization like his – which is based in Southern Nevada – would normally put people on a bus and drive up together to advocate for issues all on the same day.

That is really hard to do safely, during a pandemic.

On top of that, he said Latinx and immigrant communities aren’t getting enough vaccine access. 

“It doesn’t matter that the legislative building is open, it doesn’t matter that the vaccines are available because they’re not in reach for the most vulnerable people whose voices need to be heard the most,” he said, “So, it’s unfortunate that the pandemic put a dampening on the ability for working-class Nevadans to have their voices heard. But we’re still chugging along, because we have to care for their safety, not just their quality of life but their lives in general. This is a pandemic. So no, we won’t be going to the state Legislature even though it’s open.”

Essentially, COVID is limiting the peoples’ access to the peoples’ house.

Bert Johnson, Legislative Reporter, Nevada Public Radio

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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.