Nevadans grapple with the legacy of mass murder
Sage Leehey was not sure where the bullets were coming from at the Route 91 Harvest country-music festival in Las Vegas. Actually, she wasn’t initially certain they were bullets.
She is young (25), very smart (a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno), a fine writer (a former special projects editor for the RN&R), and now a teacher.
The situation seemed unreal to her as she and her friend Torre ran from place to place seeking somewhere to hide. That wasn’t easy when they didn’t know the bullets were coming from above. They thought it was ground level. “We just assumed it was on the ground, so we didn’t want to stay there.” Still, the popping did not sound like gunfire.
Then they encountered something that made it real—a body. It was very bloody.
At some point, she texted her parents, sister in law, and others a message she remembers as, “There are gunshots. I’m not sure that they’re real. I love you all.”
She kept telling herself, “Don’t lose Torre. Don’t lose my phone.”
They ran into the media tent. Tables there were overturned, and they crouched behind one. “Some guy came up and told us, ’No, no, no.’ He lifted up the tent.” They crawled out. The fellow stayed with them.
“We found his car and got down in the back.” He drove out of the area. “We decided to go to Town Square. I told my parents to come get us there.”
The immediate terror was over for Leehey, though like so many, she’s still badly shaken.
In the days after the massacre, Nevadans became familiar with the kind of didn’t-think-it-could-happen-here and what-does-this-mean questions that have previously afflicted folks in Colorado, Oregon, Connecticut and other places.
These incidents may not be omnipresent, but it sometimes seems so. A Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Metro News, was doing a telephone interview on Oct. 6 with Arizona gun control activist Jennifer Longdon about the mass shooting in Las Vegas when she got a text. It told her there had just been another one, this one in Arizona itself, about 45 minutes from Longdon’s home—four shot dead in Casa Grande. Longdon, a candidate for the Arizona Legislature, is herself paralyzed as the result of being shot by a stranger in a 2004 road rage incident. Three violent incidents are referenced in this paragraph.
The comic newspaper the Onion ran a story about the Las Vegas killings under the headline “’No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
It ran similar stories after the mass murders in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, and in Charleston, South Carolina; San Bernardino, California; and Roseburg, Oregon—all in 2015. All of them headlined “’No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
The Columbia Journalism Review asked, “Is the Onion’s repeated republishing of a satirical article about the inevitability of mass shootings still satire when it is no longer a caricature but actual news?”
There was commentary on Nevada, too. In the United States, readers read this headline in USA Today and YouTube: “Yes, you can buy a machine gun in Nevada.”
In Britain, readers read the headline, “Nevada voters approved a new gun control law—so why was it not enforced?”
But Nevada’s peculiar image lent itself to this kind of thing. No one raised questions about Nebraska or Indiana after incidents in Omaha and Terre Haute.
Although there were recollections in various media of earlier mass killings, particularly the Charles Whitman case in Texas, there seemed to be a home-state reluctance to mention that it had happened before in Nevada—in Reno in 1980, and without guns. On Thanksgiving that year, a 51-year old woman of uncertain sanity named Priscilla Ford drove a Lincoln Continental onto the sidewalk, knocking people over like bowling pins (“The day terror came downtown,” RN&R July 17, 2003). Six people died and 23 were injured. It was hard not to recall Priscilla Ford when someone in Las Vegas told the Washington Post that the Las Vegas shooting was like “something we would see in a war zone.” Many had made the same comparison in 1980. Yet no one wrote about Ford. Guns had sucked up all the air in the public dialogue room.
People often ask how the National Rifle Association, a relatively small group of five million, has the influence it has. It’s a question that was once asked about the alcohol prohibition movement that accomplished enactment of a constitutional amendment.
Prohibitionists operated much like the NRA. In the early 20th century, the Anti-Saloon League took leadership of the issue away from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Prohibition Party. The WCTU and Prohibition Party had other issues besides alcohol, such as vice or the Christian amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The League did not. Today it would be called a single issue interest group. It did not care how legislators—or voters—felt about the League of Nations, labor strikes, anarchism, tariffs, child labor or lynching. It focused solely on alcohol, and its membership, by aiming its votes like a rifle instead of a shotgun, could affect single digit percentages in elections. That was often enough to turn election after election to the drys, in both primaries and general elections. In one Ohio election, every single state legislative seat went to prohibition candidates. That effectiveness swept across the nation, turning legislatures and Congress toward a policy stance that probably could not have prevailed any other way. The League also developed highly effective organization, leadership and fundraising.
The NRA doesn’t care about whether candidates are Republicans or Democrats—only how they vote on guns. And its membership is highly responsive to the organization’s leadership and highly motivated at election time. Surveys consistently show the NRA is out of step with public opinion, yet politicians know it can turn elections, both with its one-issue focus and an effective organization.
And the NRA is the more moderate of gun lobby groups.
This is sometimes portrayed as a Republicans vs. Democrats issue. But key Democrats are often dedicated supporters of the gun lobby. At the state level, longtime Democratic speaker of the Nevada Assembly Joe Dini lent important support to NRA lobbyist Ed Bruce. At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada advertised his successful efforts to protect assault weapons from legal curbs.
Reid’s replacement in the Senate, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, takes a more flexible position on gun control, but it is uncertain how firm she can be on issues, based on her past performance.
As for Reid’s replacement as Nevada’s senior senator, the blood was scarcely dry in Las Vegas when U.S. Sen. Dean Heller said, “Let me be clear, I’m not interested in watering down the Second Amendment.” But that’s a straw person. No one has asked Heller to undercut the Second Amendment. The amendment requires that firearms be “well regulated,” which is why in the same appearance, Heller said of a ban on bump stocks, “You show me the law that would stop that, not only will I support it, I will be an advocate for that law.”
The politicians and gun lobby skillfully framed the post-Las Vegas issue around peripheral matters, like bump stocks and silencers, not automatic and semi-automatics, and journalists went for it like children offered candy by strangers.
Gun regulation is not the only issue. It’s also whether gun regulation is discussed. The gun lobby tries to suppress such discussion. There is a federal law which vaguely discourages gun control research. No one knows exactly what that means, but at the CDC, they got the message. No one is going to put a job on the line over such an ambiguous instruction. At the Nevada Legislature, when a committee was formed in 2012 to advise legislators on criminal justice and recommend law changes, the committee voted 8 to 5 not to talk about assault weapons. Silence is always politically safe.
Nevada is new to the gun control battles other states have experienced for decades. In 2013, things started to change when the Nevada Legislature, with a Democratic majority, approved a measure that expanded background checks before gun purchases, including barring gun ownership to anyone burdened with a court finding of mental illness.
It was a mild measure compared to some state and federal checks, but Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed even such minimal regulation. His veto message read: “[T]he provisions of Senate Bill 221 pertaining to background checks for the private sale and transfer of firearms constitute an erosion of Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights under the United States Constitution and may subject otherwise law-abiding citizens to criminal prosecution. For example, the bill mandates that a private person wishing to sell a firearm to a family member must request a background check through a federally licensed firearms dealer. Additionally, a private person wishing to sell a firearm to a holder of a concealed weapon permit must conduct the transaction under the supervision of a federally licensed firearms dealer.”
The Second Amendment calls for “well-regulated” weapons, and Sandoval did not explain why regulation erodes the amendment. Nor did he explain what is sacrosanct about family weapons transfers that they should be treated differently from others. Nevada has a long history of crime families, from Barker gang members who frequented the state in the 1930s to 1990s Nevada death row inmate Gerald Gallego, Jr., whose father was executed by Mississippi for murder in 1955. We recently learned the Las Vegas killer’s father was on the FBI most wanted list.
Moreover, Sandoval could—through his lobbyists—have informed the lawmakers early on that he had a problem with the bill so they could have addressed his concerns and amended it. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Justin Jones, told us, “I attempted to work with representatives from the governor’s office, including the chief of staff Gerald Gardner, during the 2013 legislative session to resolve any reasonable concerns they had. The governor’s office did not articulate any concerns regarding transfer of weapons between family members that were not already covered by SB221.”
Sen. Richard Segerblom, who took up the issue after Jones left the senate, says to this day, “I would certainly be willing to address family member transfers if that would allow [the] governor to come around.”
Nevertheless, this first fight over regulating weapons—the veto, cast after the lawmakers went home for the year, was later sustained by the 2015 Republican legislature—was important. It hardened feelings and convinced many that state government was not on their side.
It was true that they were fighting longstanding conventional wisdom in the capital that the Nevada public was fiercely resistant to gun control, which tended to make efforts for gun regulation more of an uphill fight than other issues. It took outsiders to see changes in the state and give a voice to Nevadans who bucked the truism.
Nevada has evolved. Assumptions about the state had dropped like flies in recent years. The state, which had not voted Democratic in a presidential race since 1964, started doing it again. According to the 2010 census, Nevada is the third most urban state, behind only California and New York. Few people live in its rural expanses.
Across the nation, mayors were becoming fed up with the power of the gun lobby as carnage destroyed their cities’ quality of life. They formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which later merged with a mothers’ group to form Everytown for Gun Safety. When Everytown came calling in Nevada, it found plenty of receptive ears.
A group called Nevadans for Background Checks was formed, and it easily gathered the needed 101,667 signatures to put a measure on the ballot—and then some. It obtained 242 percent of the necessary signatures (“Aim for the truth,” RN&R, June 30, 2016). The achievement sent a tremor through pro-gun forces and shocked traditional Nevadans, to say nothing of the NRA—which also faced a successful Maine ballot measure.
The petition went first to the 2015 Nevada Legislature, which could adopt it outright or propose an alternative. It did neither. The legislature had been taken over by Republicans who rubbed salt in the wounds of gun regulation advocates by passing a panoply of pro-gun measures. Among others, there were bills taking power away from municipalities with stronger gun laws than the state. They shut down a Clark County gun registration program and ordered its records destroyed. It advanced the feeling that state government was not to be trusted on the issue, a feeling that had already led to a fatal misjudgment by Nevadans for Background Checks.
NRA spokesperson Catherine Mortensen liked to point out that some support for the measure came from out of state. (She’s a Virginian.) But so did opposition to it. The gun lobby mounted a multi-million dollar campaign against Question 1 and lost. The measure passed with 50.45 percent of the vote, dealing a sharp blow to Silver State conventional wisdom. There were plenty of campaigning Nevadans, like businesswoman Elaine Wynn, former sheriffs Mike Haley and Bill Young, and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson to offset the notion that it was an out of state effort—to say nothing of the whopping 246,674 Nevadans who signed petitions putting the measure on the ballot.
But there was a poison pill in the initiative. Though advocates have faulted Attorney General Adam Laxalt for blocking implementation of the background checks, he was not wrong in his interpretation of the law.
Nevada has a circuitous procedure for background checks. Distrusting state officials who had been so hostile to gun regulation, the drafters of the initiative petition language avoided using the complicated state system administered by the Nevada Department of Public Safety. We’ll call it Nevada/DPS. Instead, the petition directed that background checks be run directly through the federal system, National Instant Criminal Background Check System, administered by the FBI. We’ll call it FBI/NICS.
The petition’s legal language not only directed that FBI/NICS conduct its background checks, but directed that Nevada/DPS not be used. This created a problem for the state. Having a state system effectively meant Nevada had opted out of the federal system, according to the FBI. An inquiry from DPS to the FBI brought a letter confirming that the FBI could conduct checks only for eight states, Nevada not among them. DPS asked Laxalt what to do. Laxalt rendered an opinion, written by his deputy Gregory Zunino, saying that according to the initiative petition’s own language, Nevada/DPS checks were prohibited by the new voter-enacted law.
Laxalt’s formal Dec. 28, 2016, opinion advised DPS not to enforce the law and said that Nevadans were “excused from compliance” with it.
Keeping faith with the public vote might now call for further action by Laxalt or the governor making recommendations to the Nevada Legislature on how to fulfill the voters’ intent without the new law. Having issued the opinion and brought the program to a halt, Laxalt now could have advised lawmakers on whether the program could still be implemented another way. So might the governor. The legislature was about to meet, and its new Democratic majority was ready and willing. Many watched to see what Laxalt would do. Former Washoe sheriff Haley predicted Laxalt “will not try to find any resolution to what the FBI has said because he’s adverse to the initiative’s language, anyway.”
It was a golden opportunity for Laxalt to expand his political base beyond Republicans and the rural areas. There were ways of saving the program. But Laxalt was content to do nothing. More than that, he muddied the waters to reduce the chances of a remedy being devised. He had included a footnote in his opinion that seemed to threaten that if a way was found to make the new law work, he would have three and possibly more other ways of invalidating it.
As for Sandoval, two days after the Las Vegas killings this month, he asked Laxalt to look into whether there were ways to implement the law. It was a question he could have asked on Dec. 29, 2016, when the legislature was about to go into session.
One way was very much open. The lawmakers could have accepted the Laxalt opinion, treated the initiative petition as null and void, and then enacted a similar law along the same lines as approved by voters—but without the FBI/NICS problem. For whatever reason, neither Laxalt, the governor, nor the Democrats tried to revive the voter-approved system. The Democratic majority did approve a bill curbing gun ownership by domestic abusers and stalkers.
Asked about the White House line that now is not the time to discuss gun regulation, Sage Leehey said she disagreed. “No. … It does not make sense to me that he had all of those guns. … How is it that the only illegal thing he did was shoot people?”
Still badly shaken, she intends to get past it.
“I don’t want to be scared to go to a concert,” she said. “We can’t live in this moment. We can’t live in this forever.”
If the ballot measure had taken effect, it would not have prevented the Las Vegas killings. The Nevada Firearms Coalition’s Don Turner quickly pointed that out, saying, “Explosives obviously are illegal under Nevada law, and he had them. So how did that law prevent him from having the explosives?”
Many societal maladies are dealt with incrementally. Steps proposed to deal with deliberate and accidental killings are not intended to prevent all such killings, nor are they intended to prevent only one such killing. No one-size-fits-all-crimes law is possible. If we had a vaccine that would prevent only 40 percent of diabetes cases, should we not use it? While Don Turner is right that background checks would not made a difference in Las Vegas, can he say that would have been true in Orlando; Sandy Hook; Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771; Washington Navy Yard; Virginia Tech; Tucson; Killeen, Texas; San Bernadino and San Ysidro, California; Binghamton, New York; Camden, New Jersey; Aurora and Columbine, Colorado; Jacksonville, Florida; DeKalb, Illinois; Red Lake, Minnesota; or Edmond, Oklahoma?
Guns that microstamp bullets, or limits on total gun purchases, or workplace weapons bans, or bans on high capacity magazines, or assault weapons bans, or barring weapons to the mentally ill, domestic abusers and no-fly listees will not stamp out all future tragedies. But they may reduce them or make them less grievous.
“Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured,” Albert Camus said in 1948 at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg. “But we can reduce the number of tortured children.”