Last Friday the Assembly passed SB 143, and Governor Steve Sisolak (D) ended a six-year long debate on expanding background checks by signing the bill into law. Just moments later, the nation was horrified by another mass shooting, this time at a manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois. This was a very strange and incredibly tragic circumstance, yet it’s one that highlights both the need to address the nation’s growing gun violence crisis and the shortcomings of the small gun violence prevention measures that are typically taken, if any are taken at all.
“My life was saved by a malfunctioning gun. It should have been saved by background checks.”
– Lisa Hendricks, Las Vegas
At Springs Preserve yesterday, Las Vegas gun safety activist Lisa Hendricks introduced U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). During her introductory speech, Hendricks described her harrowing experience of surviving gun violence as she explained why the Nevada Legislature’s passage of SB 143 is a big deal. As Hendricks described it, “My life was saved by a malfunctioning gun. It should have been saved by background checks.”
As she commended Governor Steve Sisolak (D) for signing SB 143 into law and following through on his promise to begin enforcement of the background checks expansion (in January 2020) that Nevada voters approved in 2016, Hendricks added, “You don’t need a gun pointed at your head to know we need background checks.”
Yet just 48 hours before Hendricks and Warren spoke at Springs Preserve, and just as Sisolak was signing SB 143 into law, the nation witnessed another mass shooting.
What happened in Aurora, Illinois?
On Friday, a gunman opened fire at the Henry Pratt Company warehouse in Aurora, Illinois, some 40 miles west of Chicago. He brought a handgun to a meeting that was called to announce his termination, and proceeded to kill five coworkers and injure five others.
We now know that the gunman had domestic violence convictions, and as a result, was legally prohibited from possessing firearms. And yet, despite failing a background check and being asked to surrender his gun, he somehow managed to maintain easy access to firearms. In 2014, he even passed a background check for a gun owner ID card due to the lack of fingerprinting and failure to discover his 1995 aggravated assault conviction in Mississippi.
Even though state and federal law prohibit domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms, there’s no provision in federal or Illinois state law to require these offenders surrender their guns. Rather, after the gunman failed the background check for a concealed carry permit, Illinois authorities merely requested he voluntarily turn in his gun. He never did.
What makes Nevada different?
If the system failed prior to this latest tragedy, what makes us think the system can work here? Keep in mind that there are some key differences here in Nevada. For one, Nevada’s background checks system is run by the Nevada Department of Public Safety and utilizes our state’s criminal records and mental health records along with out-of-state records. Under SB 143, gun sales and transfers that are not currently subjected to background checks will be checked under the same system beginning next January.
Another difference is 2017’s SB 124, a bill from State Senator Pat Spearman (D) that then Governor Brian Sandoval (R) signed into law. Under this relatively new law, domestic violence offenders are legally required to surrender their firearms unless they are required to use guns on the job. And even then, the law now sets in place limitations to gun access under those circumstances. If such offenders are found to be in violation of this rule, then they can face a new felony charge.
Still, this latest mass shooting tragedy serves as a painful reminder that small changes to our gun laws can only go so far in curbing gun violence. As long as most elected leaders continue to shy away from stronger policies, such as a license requirement for aspiring gun owners and restrictions on civilian access to military-grade weapons, we will probably continue to suffer a greater amount of gun violence than the levels seen in the rest of the developed world. But without any action on gun violence prevention, we run the risk of allowing for even more mass shootings like the recent Aurora, Illinois, tragedy, as well as many more daily gun violence tragedies that don’t make national headline news.