Aim for the truth
Parsing the details of the background check initiative
In November, Nevadans will vote on whether or not to implement new background check requirements for certain types of firearm transfers. At its most basic level, Question 1—the Nevada background check initiative—will determine whether or not an individual without a federal firearms license (FFL) must undergo a background check when receiving a gun from another unlicensed person.
The exchange of a gun between unlicensed people is commonly referred to as a “private party transfer” and currently does not require a background check when conducted between two Nevada residents. But the ballot initiative is not as simple as voting “yea” or “nay” on requiring background checks on private transfers. That’s because the definition of a transfer covers more than just the sale of a gun. It also includes gifts, inheritances and the temporary lending of firearms for purposes such as self-defense, hunting and trapping, target-shooting, and organized firearms competitions and performances.
Question 1 would apply the background check rule differently to the various types of transfers based on several factors like a familial relationship between two unlicensed people.
Before delving into the ways groups on each side of the debate are presenting the details of the initiative in an effort to win support, it helps to first become acquainted with—or refreshed on—how the initiative landed on the ballot for a vote by the general electorate.
This particular gun control proposal has been in and out of the news and plastered across pro- and anti-gun websites for more than three years. What is now Question 1 on the 2016 ballot was first Senate Bill 221 of the 2013 session of the Nevada Legislature. The bill passed through both houses by narrow margins late in the session and was delivered to the Gov. Brian Sandoval for approval on June 6, 2013.
Five days later, the Las Vegas Sun reported that in one day alone there had been “44,000 calls—33,000 of them against the bill” made to the governor’s office. Sandoval vetoed the bill on June 13, 2013, citing in his veto letter a number of the bill’s components as imposing “unreasonable burdens and harsh penalties upon law-abiding Nevadans.”
However, a 2014 petition drive led by the group Nevadans for Background Checks collected enough signatures to place the measure back before the Legislature during the 2015 session, this time as a citizens’ initiative. In the interim, the Legislature had flipped to a Republican majority in the 2014 election. The legislature’s decision not to approve the petition (in this case by ignoring it entirely) within 40 days immediately qualified the measure for a popular vote in the 2016 general election.
Media coverage concerning the initiative slowed for a time after the March 13, 2015 announcement that it would appear as a ballot question in 2016. Now, coverage surrounding the initiative is picking up again as candidates for local and state offices voice their stances on the matter and groups on both sides of the background check debate attempt to sway voters to their respective sides in the lead-up to November’s election.
There are two political action committees registered with the Nevada Secretary of State’s office in regards to Question 1—Safe Nevada in support of the initiative, and Nevadans for State Gun Rights in opposition to it. By comparing the information presented on the PACs’ respective campaign websites to the wording of the actual initiative petition, it’s clear that each group has presented at least some information that doesn’t portray the initiative’s intentions accurately. To demonstrate this, one statement was chosen from each PAC website for comparison to the actual text of the initiative.
Background checks conducted by FFLs in Nevada are done by calling the Nevada Department of Public Safety’s Records Bureau. The Records Bureau checks state criminal records and also the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Nevada FFLs don’t contact NICS directly because the FBI and the state developed a Point of Contact Firearms Program, which according to the Department of Public Safety’s website “has access to Nevada criminal records unavailable to agencies outside of the state, as well as the national records.” Nevada is one of 13 states that are full participants in the POC program.
The text of the initiative petition that concerns how a licensed dealer would conduct a background check for a transfer or sale between two unlicensed individuals states that the dealer would “comply with all requirements of federal and state law as though … selling or transferring the firearm from his or her own inventory,” except for one key difference. The dealer would have to contact NICS directly instead of the state POC program.
Safe Nevada reiterates this difference on its website but makes no mention of an issue arising from this change. According to Records Bureau Chief Mindy McKay, the state’s designation as a POC for the NICS program means that FFLs cannot contact NICS directly. McKay explained that before FFLs would be allowed to contact NICS directly, the state would have to work with the FBI to change the existing protocol. This would mean Nevada would no longer be a full participant in the FBI’s POC program, and that background checks for private party transfers would not include any Nevada criminal records not available to agencies outside of the state.
An example of an inaccurate assertion on the Nevadans for State Gun Rights’ website concerns the process unlicensed individuals would have to go through when transferring a firearm through a federally licensed firearm dealer. The website states:
“This proposed bill requires you to surrender your firearm to a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL), who is regulated by federal bureaucrats. You must pay them a fee to sell your gun. If your firearm does not transfer, you must pay the federal fee to have the background check run on you before you get your gun back.”
Again, looking at the wording of the actual petition shows that this information is incorrect. The wording of the initiative that covers background checks by FFLs clearly states that “the seller or transferor may remove the firearm from the business premises while the background check is being conducted, provided that” the seller and the buyer both return to the licensed dealer before completing the sale or transfer. The federal regulations covering private transfers also allow the seller to keep the gun in his or her possession but do stipulate that if the gun is left in an FFL’s possession, a background check would be required to retrieve it.
Each of the PACs has misrepresented at least one of the facts behind Question 1. Luckily, with more than four months until the election, Nevada voters still have time to learn for themselves exactly what the background check initiative would and wouldn’t do. Both PAC websites and the Nevada Secretary of State’s website provide links to the text of the initiative petition for those willing to take a closer look.