This week on IndyMatters, we have a story on churches suing to go back to in-person services, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s new directive that allows many churches to re-start services and how the coronavirus has affected their congregations. After that, we’ve got an interview with the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, an organization that helps those affected by the October 1 shooting that happened in Vegas 3 years ago. At the end of the show, we have a short section from our Facebook live show which this week saw reporter Jackie Valley talking about distance learning with assistant editor Michelle Rindels.
Democratic lawmakers entered the 2019 Legislature with a clear vision in mind; toughen up Nevada’s historically loose gun laws.
State Democrats had won a near sweep and clear legislative majorities in the 2018 midterm election, the first election since the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds more injured. On the campaign trail, Democrats did not shy away and instead campaigned on preventing gun violence; one of Steve Sisolak’s most memorable ads focused directly on the mass shooting and a promise to ban “assault rifles, bump stocks, silencers.”
Within the first two weeks of the Legislature, Democrats had passed (along party lines) a bill to finally implement a narrowly passed 2016 initiative requiring background checks on private party gun sales. By the end of the 120-day session, they had passed a “1 October Bill” (AB291) banning bump stocks, raising blood alcohol limits for firearm possession and implementing a legal process allowing courts to temporarily seize firearms from a person displaying high-risk behavior.
Many of the bills elicited a strong negative reaction from pro-gun rights groups (including the National Rifle Association), with opponents flooding the halls of the Legislature to oppose the measures as unnecessary or overly punitive.
Still, Democratic lawmakers — including bill sponsor and October 1 survivor Sandra Jauregui — touted the legislation as the “most comprehensive gun safety legislation in Nevada history.”
“We'll never be able to go back and protect those who have been taken from us because of gun violence, but because of the actions that we took in Nevada we are making our communities a safer place,” the Democratic assemblywoman said in a statement after the bill was signed.
The two major provisions — expanded background checks for private party sales and “red flag” extreme risk protection orders — took effect in January.
But over the last nine months, adoption and use of the new laws has been mixed.
Public records obtained by The Nevada Independent indicate that more than 2,400 background checks on private party transactions have been conducted between the law’s effective date in January and Sept. 1. But the state Department of Public Safety — which manages the state’s background check system — only reported four issuances of “red flag” Extreme Risk Protection Orders over the last nine months.
The small number of orders — which only include approved orders and not applications or denials — may be in part attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in many state courts closing in-person operations and taking other safety precautions to limit spread of the disease.
Advocates say it's also too early to draw strong conclusions about the efficiency of the laws William Rosen, Everytown for Gun Safety's managing director of state policy and government affairs, said in an interview that adoption and use of the laws isn’t an automatic process, but will become more widespread as time goes on.
“It's going to be an effort among various agencies and law enforcement officials and the public to continue carrying that into practice,” he said. “The first year of data, it's the beginning of the road, not the end.”
Expanded background checks
By a margin of fewer than 10,000 votes out of more than 1.1 million cast, Nevada voters narrowly approved Question 1 on the 2016 ballot — an initiative that would require background checks before the sale or transfer of a firearm between two private parties, with some limited exceptions.
Federal law already requires background checks to be conducted on any firearm sales from a federally licensed dealer, but backers — led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Everytown for Gun Safety group — say the ballot question was necessary to cover the “gun show loophole,” or sales between private individuals without the involvement of a dealer.
Supporters, led by Bloomberg and Everytown, poured more than $19 million into the group supporting the ballot question, while the NRA contributed close to $6.6 million to the opposition group.
But implementation of the measure never happened. Then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt announced in late 2016 that the FBI was refusing to conduct the expanded background checks for the state — a major procedural issue as the initiative specifically required the federal agency, and not the state, to conduct the checks. Nevada law also prohibited any changes to voter-approved statutory initiatives for a period of three years.
Fast-forward to 2019 — after Democrats won clear legislative majorities and control of the governor’s office for the first time in two decades — and Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill (SB143) moving the responsibility of conducting the background checks from the FBI to the state. Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the bill into law in just the second week of the legislative session, with it set to take effect in January 2020.
Since the law went into effect in January, the number of private-party background checks per month has continually increased. January saw 168 private-party background checks, with August seeing the highest to-date total of checks at 518 total.
Nevada’s Point of Contact Firearms Program typically handles more than 100,000 background check requests per year, according to the agency. The agency rejects about 2,000 attempted firearm purchases every year.
Lawmakers and state officials say the state-run background check system is more effective and comprehensive than the federally operated system, as it includes state-level criminal history and mental-health records.
Though data on rejection rates for private party background checks were not immediately available, Rosen said he believed the state was off to a “healthy start” and that the law was more designed to take away gun-buying opportunities for individuals that would otherwise fail a background check.
“That's the whole point of the law, of course, is that law abiding sellers can help shrink the market of unlicensed non-background check sales for unlawful buyers,” he said.
Annette Magnus, executive director of progressive advocacy group Battle Born Progress, said the uptick in background check totals was a positive sign that meant more people were following the law and going through the correct process. But she added the numbers may also reflect the higher number of gun sales in 2020 thus far, which could be a future cause of concern.
“I do think people feel unsafe,” she said. “I think you're going to continue to see those numbers go up and look, I'm glad we closed the background check loophole, that does make all of us safer. But I think on the flip side of that, seeing those numbers rise for gun sales generally and these numbers, I think there's more to that and there's more going on.”
Red Flag laws
Nevada’s new “red flag” law that allows courts to temporarily seize firearms from high-risk individuals has been used sparingly over the last nine months, and a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality is still pending in court.
The ability to issue orders come from a multi-pronged firearms bill (AB291) approved during the 2019 legislative session. A total of 19 states and Washington, D.C. have implemented some kind of “red flag law,” according to gun safety group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Under the law, a court can issue an “extreme risk protection order” that takes away any owned firearms or the right to possess or buy a gun from an individual for any of the following reasons:
- Making threats or committing actual acts of violence against themselves or others
- Engaging in behavior a police officer determines to be a “serious and imminent threat”
- Engaging in high-risk behavior while possessing or recently purchasing a firearm
The law requires that a hearing to be held within seven days of the issuance of the initial order, allowing judges to issue an extended order valid up to a year prohibiting an individual from possessing firearms if the court determines gun ownership could result in injury to the person or others and if other, less restrictive options have been exhausted or not effective.
The final version of the bill, which also banned firearm modifications similar to bump stocks and added penalties for negligent storage of firearms, was staunchly opposed by Republicans and passed on near-party line votes in the Senate and Assembly before being signed into law by Gov. Sisolak.
But according to the Nevada Department of Public Safety, only four such protective orders have been granted since the state’s new law went into effect in January. Two of the orders were filed in February, another in May, and the fourth in September. One was issued in Carson City, one in the Ninth District Court (Douglas County) and two in Eighth Judicial District Court (Clark County).
Other states that have adopted similar “red flag” laws have generally seen larger numbers of protective orders filed. Oregon, which implemented a similar law in 2018, saw about 74 petitions filed in its first year of implementation. Maryland judges granted 148 such orders within the first three months of the law; Vermont issued about 30 such orders in its first 16 months of having a similar law in place.
The group found that states with “red flag laws” issued around 3,900 protection orders between January 2018 and August 2019, with a tally showing no state has issued fewer than nine extreme risk protection orders per year.
Rosen said there were a number of “confounding factors” that could affect Nevada’s total of protective orders issued, including court closures from the COVID-19 pandemic, and that most states tended to issue more orders as law enforcement and the legal system because they were more comfortable with their use.
“I do think it's going to take a little time and effort, but I'm not disappointed at all that in its first year, especially this year, that we may be off to a slow start,” he said.
Advocates of the law say it can help family members and law enforcement take a preemptive step to prevent mass shootings, domestic shootings or suicide by an individual demonstrating high-risk behavior.
Magnus, who lobbied for the bill in the 2019 Legislature, said the small number of protective orders filed thus far is likely attributable to court closures and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. She said a smaller number of the orders being filed should be considered a good sign — meaning fewer people found it necessary — but acknowledged it may take time for use of the tool to become more widespread.
“As more people find out about this new law, and are able to access this new law when they're in dangerous situations, you will see an uptick in the number of people who are utilizing this and I think you'll see judges and law enforcement also start to utilize this as well,” Magnus said.
But the law in Nevada has been met with a flurry of opposition from gun right activists and several rural counties and sheriffs, some of whom have threatened to not enforce provisions in the law.
That opposition culminated in a lawsuit filed in December 2019 by a conservative nonprofit group, NevadansCAN, which sought to challenge the new law as an unconstitutional “government power grab” that ignored due process rights in allowing a judge to temporarily seize a person’s firearms.
The request was rejected in an order filed in early July by Carson City District Court Judge James Russell, who denied the injunction request over a lack of standing.
Without ruling on the constitutionality of the law, Russell wrote that the political advocacy group and an individual gun owner who joined the lawsuit lacked standing because they “have not alleged that they will suffer an imminent cognizable personal injury due to the order for protection provisions.”
Instead, Russell wrote that a lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality would be better suited if brought by a person subject to an extreme risk protection order.
But the lawsuit is still pending, as three rural counties and four sheriffs in Elko, Pershing, Humboldt and Eureka counties have filed to intervene. No additional hearing on their motion has yet been scheduled, and a spokeswoman for Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office said a decision from the court could take a “couple of months.”
Tacoma resident Dean McAuley tried to attend a Kenny Chesney concert recently, hoping to reclaim the country music that had been the soundtrack of one of his darkest nights.
But positioned so close to the stage, he ended up crumpling to the ground in a panic attack. The music unleashed the terror he lived at the Route 91 Harvest festival in 2017, when he barricaded behind trash cans that took fire and made a phone call to his boss that he thought might be his last.
An off-duty fireman, he used his training that night to administer first aid to people at the festival grounds and was able to save one teenager — then-17-year-old Natalia Baca — when he attended to her at an EMS tent and ushered her to the hospital. But he’s also haunted by the “what ifs.”
“I'm living this all the time,” he said. “And then you start replaying stuff in your head. You start wondering — you know, the two girls that didn't make it that I worked on. You start asking yourself if you did everything.”
McAuley’s healing journey in the last three years has included going to therapy and changing his role within the fire department to move away from certain frontline work. But on Wednesday, it also included adding a permanent reminder of the shooting to his arm.
McAuley, 49, was one of 18 people chosen to receive a free tattoo from 17 artists volunteering their time as part of the “Healing Ink” initiative. He proposed the idea of a guitar and the words “I got what I got, I don't miss what I had” — lyrics from a new song by Jason Aldean, who was playing when the shooting began — but he left the rest up to the artist.
The very act of surrendering control of the design is an extension of a lesson he’s learned through the trial.
“As a firefighter, we're always trying to control the organized chaos,” McAuley said. “I’ve got to let go of control in order to be helped and to get healthy.”
Healing Ink launched in 2016 as an initiative of Artists for Israel, a group that historically has used street art to express support for Israel and help communities affected by terrorism. Participants in the project use tattoos as a way to cover up the scars of people affected by war and terrorism, but have more recently branched out to work with survivors of other tragedies, including the 9/11 attacks and the Pulse nightclub shooting.
“Some people are seeking to be healed. Some people want a memorial for a loved one. But the overall consensus is it's helping people gain their identity back,” said tattoo artist Zach Turner, director of Healing Ink. “They couldn’t choose to be shot, but they can choose to get a beautiful piece of artwork permanently etched into their skin.”
With the ongoing pandemic, the group had to cancel its annual event in Tel Aviv. While discussing alternatives, a documentary on the Route 91 Harvest shooting was playing in the background.
It dawned on Turner and the other organizers that they could bring the initiative to Las Vegas. The response was overwhelming, and they said they had a tough job trying to narrow the list of applications down to 18 tattoo recipients.
One of them was Las Vegas resident Heather Gooze, who got a tattoo of a feather and birds on her leg with the words “be your own kind of beautiful.” The feather includes the colors yellow, red and green — the colors of the wristbands she wore for each day of the festival where she worked as a bartender.
Gooze, 46, stayed in the festival grounds until dawn with those she calls “angels,” first holding the head of victim Christopher Hazencomb and helping him get into a car before he succumbed to his injuries, and then staying with Jordan McIldoon, answering his phone, until the coroner came. She said she would hope a stranger might also hold vigil with her body if the roles were reversed.
“I would wonder if somebody would stay with me,” she said, “make sure that people knew who I was, where I was from and tell my story so that they understood what was going on.”
As time has passed, she’s found she can now talk about the experience without crying. But she still gets anxious over the sound of fireworks and searches for escape routes when she goes out.
“Anybody that says to us ‘get over it’ or ‘you should be over it by now’ or ‘move on’ or whatever — that's ridiculous,” Gooze said. “It's a part of our existence, basically, at this point. We're never going to get over. So instead you need to embrace the new you.”
Being around other festival attendees on Wednesday who understand what she’s been through was healing, she said. And she hopes people ask about the meaning of the tattoo, so she can tell the story of Healing Ink coming to Las Vegas and keep a conversation going about how to make the world a better place.
“As a warrior, you owe it to the 58 that passed to live the best life you can,” she said. “And we should never forget there needs to be changes in this world made so that you know this doesn't happen again.”
Sue Ann Cornwell left the tattoo studio on Wednesday with an image of an American flag in the shape of a cowboy boot, as well as the music notes from the opening bars of “God Bless America.” It was a song that Big and Rich had played that fateful night four times because the crowd would not stop singing, she said.
“I have never had that song touch me and affect me the way it did that night. It went right to my heart. I mean, I had goosebumps,” said Cornwell, 55. “I like to look back at the amazement in that moment, and believe that it was God's hand bringing us all together … I think that moment gave us the emotional strength to be able to, for me, go back in nine times and help people.”
Cornwell, who had just retired from driving a school bus in Las Vegas when she attended the concert, noticed before others in the crowd that a speaker had been shot and was catching fire. She jumped into action, telling her sister and a nearby pregnant woman to get down, then she laid on top of them to protect them with her body.
She told others to find shelter under the stage. She hoisted some over fencing. She put one woman who was gravely injured in her truck, then started driving over sidewalks and through red lights trying to get her help, until a nurse tending to the woman told her, ominously, that she could slow down because the woman had succumbed to her injuries.
“That was the worst part of the night because I felt completely useless at that moment,” she said. “I couldn't help her.’
Cornwell took it upon herself to decorate a tree on behalf of the woman, Denise Burditis, at the Healing Garden dedicated to victims, and has since taken it upon herself to ensure the memorial is maintained. She’s noticed that in the last three years, people affected by the shooting have gone from being unsure of how to talk to those who had lost a loved one to becoming a family.
She talks with Burditis’ family frequently. The pregnant woman she shielded from bullets gave her daughter the middle name “Sue Ann.”
“I focus on the good of that night,” Cornwell said. “And as tragic as it was, the love that has come out of it, and the support and how everybody just cares for each other ... we truly have become the Route 91 family.”
Artists for Israel CEO Craig Dershowitz tends to gravitate toward first responders, and he finds that beyond police and firefighters, there are hospital personnel and so many others who help in a tragedy. With the focus often on the negative, on the perpetrator, the tattoo events have reinforced for him just how many people were doing the right thing.
“Every time there's something, there's just as many people doing good,” he said. “We want to celebrate and give them a reason to look back with pride and know just how much they did and that the world sees them and truly gives them credit and honor.”
For McAuley, the lyrics on his arm now — about not missing what he had — symbolize his acceptance that he is a changed man because of the shooting. In spite of the ups and downs he still has, he said he has a better understanding of addiction and suicide; he’s more empathetic.
And it’s refocused him on his family.
“It's changed me as a husband. I recognize that my true ripple effect on this world is not going to be saving patients with the fire department or putting out fires,” he said. “The dad and the husband I am is going to be what I leave on this earth.”
At a gun show last weekend in Carson City, where handguns and scopes and rifles were on display at a community center, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak was a bit of a persona non grata.
Gun control bills the governor signed out of the 2019 legislative session — including one requiring background checks on private sales and transfers and another authorizing temporary gun confiscation for people showing behavioral “red flags” — just took effect this month. Although the red flag law has not yet been used in Nevada’s two largest counties, it has attracted a lawsuit, and both laws have drawn defiant statements from rural officials and frustration among gun owners.
“It's very important for people to be able to defend themselves and also to remind the government that we're not to be pushed around,” Lee Vela, a gun seller at the Northern Nevada American Dream gun show, said on Saturday. “That goes for the federal government, that goes for Steve Sisolak, and the state government.”
SB143 implements a 2016 ballot initiative that requires background checks on private gun sales and transfers, instead of only on licensed gun dealer sales. AB291’s “red flag” provisions allow family and household members as well as law enforcement to petition a judge for a court order that allows for seizure and suspension of firearms possession for up to a year.
Vela argued that the Second Amendment guarantees him autonomy and protection and said he is worried the new laws will infringe on his rights.
“I've been carrying myself for 40 years to Vietnam and beyond, and I've never shot anybody in anger, never pulled the gun in anger, but I will if I have to defend myself, loved ones or the general public at hand,” he said.
Fellow gun salesman Matt Park chimed in and said guns are not the problem, “the ones that don’t obey the laws are the problem.”
Comments from the gun show stand in stark contrast to those of gun control advocates, who attribute public safety concerns to Nevada gun control laws that are lax in comparison to states such as California.
For some Las Vegas residents and gun control advocates, an isolated shooting that injured three people at the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas last week brought flashbacks of a larger-scale incident of gun violence that took place over two years ago: the Oct. 1 shooting in which a man who had smuggled guns into his Strip hotel room killed 58 and wounded hundreds at a concert that was taking place 32 stories below, across Las Vegas Boulevard.
Annette Magnus, executive director of the political advocacy group Battle Born Progress, said in a statement that existing gun laws are still not enough to prevent large- and small-scale gun violence. She called it a “twist of poetic irony” that the lobbyists who fought against local jurisdictions’ ability to make gun control laws stronger than those in the state at large were representing the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show — an event that was happening the same day as the mall shooting.
“In reaction to news reports of shots being fired, our Las Vegas community was once again panicked at the possibility of losing loved ones to yet another mass shooting. Thank goodness that turned out not to be the case,” Magnus said. “Those following the movement for sensible gun violence prevention during the 2019 legislative session may recall representatives of the SHOT Show and the gun lobby pushed hard to kill attempts to repeal state preemption of gun laws.”
Originally, AB291 was written to allow local governments to “pre-empt” state gun laws, allowing for more stringent rules if municipalities wanted them. But after labor unions raised concerns that such a provision would cause the SHOT Show — the nation’s largest trade show for the sport shooting and hunting industry — to relocate, pre-emption was removed from the bill.
Magnus said the fact that Clark County, municipal and local governments cannot set their own laws on gun control limits their ability to sufficiently address local gun violence.
On the other hand, sheriffs across the state have pushed back at the new gun laws, saying that they violate the Second Amendment and due process. Moreover, several county commissions have signed “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolutions essentially declaring their intent to disregard gun laws they believe to infringe on constitutional rights.
Dorin Adika, a gun seller from Florida with Dorin Technologies, hosted a booth at the SHOT Show last week and described how sometimes background checks fail to uncover issues but said he supported background checks “as long as they actually work.”
SB143 transferred the responsibility of background checks to the state’s Department of Public Safety, whereas before, voter-approved language in the law called on the FBI to conduct the background checks. The Associated Press reported that the FBI’s database has proven unreliable and incomplete in other states.
Las Vegas has the misfortune of being the site of the deadliest mass shooting in recorded U.S. history, and testimony from survivors helped propel an effort in 2019 to expand mandatory background checks to more gun sales and transfers.
Nevada voters had approved background checks by ballot initiative in 2016, but implementing the law proved difficult when the FBI refused to perform the checks.
Department spokeswoman Kim Yoko Smith said that although the state could not enforce the voter-approved background check initiative for the last three years, the Nevada Department of Public Safety conducted free, voluntary private party background checks since December 2017. Relatively few people took advantage of the optional program: the department conducted 11 private party background checks in 2017, 194 checks in 2018, and 221 checks in 2019.
For comparison, the state conducts about 100,000 gun background checks a year — it has been required to do them on sales from licensed gun dealers.
State-run background checks of private party sales and transfers are expected to jump dramatically this year, now that they are mandatory. In the first 25 days under the new law, 151 private party background checks have been completed.
New background checks and red flag laws aside, Nevada has no laws requiring licensing for gun owners nor any requiring registration of firearms. The state does not have restrictions for assault weapons or large-capacity magazines lawfully purchased by the Las Vegas shooter, enabling him to inflict mass carnage in a matter of minutes.
Red flag laws in Nevada and elsewhere
Less high-profile than background checks, a new “red flag” law — based on a concept authorized and studied in other states — is garnering perhaps the most backlash of the new gun control laws.
The measure, enacted through AB291, gives family, household members or law enforcement the ability to file Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which allows law enforcement, by a court order of up to one year, to seize firearms and prohibits possession or purchase of firearms for the duration of the order. AB291 also includes a provision that prohibits trigger-accelerating accessories, such as the bump stocks used by the Las Vegas shooter.
Bump stocks were also banned at the federal level in early 2019.
According to information from the Eighth Judicial District Court, no Extreme Risk Protection Orders have been filed in Clark County to date. The Second Judicial District Court said no one has requested a protection order in Washoe County, and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office said they have not received nor served a protection order as of late January.
Seventeen other states have implemented red flag laws as of 2020. Connecticut was the first state to enact red flag laws in 1999 and research has shown that the law correlates with a reduction in firearm suicides, but not necessarily in other forms of suicide or firearm homicides.
A study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association analyzing the effects of firearm seizure on suicide rates from 1981-2015 in Indiana and Connecticut concluded that risk-based firearm seizure laws were connected with reduced firearm suicide rates.
As part of the study, researchers also found that firearm suicides dropped by 1.6 percent in Connecticut immediately after the law passed and when enforcement of the law increased following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, reduction of firearm suicides rose to 13.7 percent.
In the 10 years after Indiana’s implementation of a red flag law in 2005, researchers added the state saw a 7.5 percent decrease in firearm suicides. However, the study also noted that data about suicide reduction in relation to red flag laws was still inconclusive when comparing Indiana to Connecticut.
“Whereas Indiana demonstrated an aggregate decrease in suicides, Connecticut’s estimated reduction in firearm suicides was offset by increased nonfirearm suicides,” the study said.
Attendees of the Northern Nevada American Dream gun show in Carson City acknowledged the need to reduce deaths from guns but said they were concerned about the potential for false allegations.
“I don’t think it’s a good law. I think they could take advantage of that situation real easily,” said Dave Rhines, a 61-year-old gun owner from Carson City.
“I was accused of something a while back. It cost me $8,000 to prove my innocence, and they dropped all the charges, but it still cost me eight grand. Same thing [with the red flag laws]. They can accuse you of something and you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent,” he added.
Growing polarization in the state surrounding gun laws
The new laws have underscored and in some ways widened divides between Democratic lawmakers, the governor and sparsely populated rural counties, some of which have mulled legal action to challenge the new requirements.
On Friday, the Humboldt County Board of Commissioners discussed joining a lawsuit filed by the conservative nonprofit group NevadansCAN, challenging the constitutionality of the red flag law. According to the Humboldt County clerk, no action has been taken yet.
Plaintiffs are concerned about due process and called the lawsuit a “government power grab.” They added that the red flag law was unconstitutional because a judge was making the decision to remove a citizen’s gun as opposed to a jury.
Red flag laws could have similar consequences to a law passed by the Legislature that authorized temporary confiscation of firearms for domestic violence offenders. Last year, the state Supreme Court required that domestic violence offenders who have their firearms confiscated under that law be given the option of a jury trial.
Justice Lidia Stiglich authored the order, which called the law a “prohibition on the right to bear arms as guaranteed by both the United States and Nevada Constitutions.”
At the Carson City gun show, 70-year-old John Abrahamian said he had been around guns all his life and views guns as tools.
“Red flag gun laws — as a gun owner, I bristle a little bit at it. Why is somebody telling me what I can and cannot do? It is one of the basic American freedoms,” he said, adding that “education is huge,” when it comes to maintaining public safety in a society that allows gun ownership.
Abrahamian acknowledged the need to address gun violence but said gun violence reflects poorly on law-abiding gun owners.
“Somebody gets up on a tower, knocks a window out of a building, and starts shooting people for what reason will we ever know? I don't know. And it reflects on all of us,” he said.
Yolanda Donato came to the gun show in Carson City with her husband and said she owns guns to protect herself. She echoed Abrahamian’s call for increased education and emphasized the need for training.
“I think that those who are opposed [to guns] need to really educate themselves and I know that there's a lot of bad things that go on in the country and it's very concerning,’ she said. “Part of [the reason people might be anti-guns] is mostly fear. A lot of them probably have young children. I can understand that.”
For some, the polarization and high emotion on both sides of the issues has prompted them to largely keep quiet about their interest in guns.
Twenty-two-year-old Hector Escobar, a granite fabricator from Carson City, says his coworkers are gun enthusiasts, and he appreciates the craftsmanship of guns. He has never owned a gun but was considering buying one at the American Dream gun show.
He perused tables featuring a variety of guns and explained he has an interest in firearms but does not usually discuss them with strangers.
“I feel like [talking about guns is] one of those conversations that's kept behind doors,” he said. “You don't really go out and be like, ‘Hey, what do you think about guns?’ I feel like you know when someone has a common interest in it and so it'll strike up a conversation, or it can put a conversation to an end."
This story was updated at 7:51 a.m. to include data on private party background checks since Jan. 2, 2020.
A committee to recall the Humboldt County sheriff and remove him from office says it submitted more than the required number of signatures on Friday to qualify the call for a special election, but organizers are reeling after learning that county officials violated election rules by allowing the target of the recall to thumb through the petition before submitting the signatures to the secretary of state.
Humboldt County Clerk Tami Spero said on Tuesday that, upon his request, she allowed Sheriff Mike Allen, the target of the recall, to flip through the pages of the petition while a deputy, who had full view of the sheriff and the document, observed him. She added that Allen is “allowed to view the petition because it is a public record.”
But in an interview with The Nevada Independent on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Thorley cited a state law that says a recall petition “must not be handled by any other person except by an employee of the county clerk’s office until it is filed with the Secretary of State.” However, Thorley said that the intent of the law was upheld.
“The whole spirit of the law is just that the county clerk retains possession and control of it, so it’s not altered or taken from her possession,” Thorley said on Tuesday. “Because the intent of the law was not violated, no action will be taken by the Secretary of State.”
Proponents of the recall, which was launched because Allen would not publicly promise that he would flout new gun control laws approved by the Legislature earlier this year, notified the secretary of state when they found out that the sheriff had been allowed to handle the petition while it was with the clerk.
Following efforts to recall three Nevada state senators in 2017, state legislators approved a bevy of new rules and requirements that increased the difficulty of gathering signatures for a recall and qualifying it for the ballot.
In order for the recall to proceed, the county clerk must submit a raw count of the signatures to the secretary of state at the end of a 90-day signature-gathering process. The secretary of state will then verify the signatures, and if enough valid signatures are found, give the county clerk a “notice of verification,” which is the approval to call a special election to be held within 40 to 50 days of the notice.
Once the secretary of state gives the county notice of verification, people who signed the petition have 10 to 20 days to request their signatures be removed. Election rules also allow the subject of a recall effort to challenge the effort in a District Court.
Allen, the sheriff who is the subject of the recall, declined to comment on whether he would file a complaint with the District Court if the recall is verified by the secretary of state’s office. He said that he has spoken with Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford about concerns with public reception of new gun laws and how to enforce them.
“[The attorney general] made it very clear that the only group that can deem a law unconstitutional is the Supreme Court,” Allen said in an interview on Monday, adding that one of his biggest concerns about new gun control laws is that they passed “in the eleventh hour.”
Passed in May, AB291’s “red flag” provision allows law enforcement or relatives of a person believed to be high risk to petition a judge to temporarily confiscate that person’s firearms. It also bans certain accessories such as high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.
The law garnered support from some advocacy groups, but conservative critics have said that the bill, which was significantly amended just before it went to a final vote in the Senate, defines “high risk” too broadly.
Last week, the nonprofit conservative group NevadansCAN filed a lawsuit to block implementation of AB291 on the grounds that seizing a person’s firearms violates due process if the order comes from a judge and not a jury. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in September that, in cases of misdemeanor domestic violence, it is unlawful to confiscate a person’s firearms for an extended period of time without giving them the option of a jury trial.
As AB291 was circulating in the Legislature, several sheriffs from rural counties across the state expressed concerns about the law, as well as some outright rejection of it. County commissions in Elko, Douglas, Lyon and Nye counties have passed “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolutions pushing back against the law, which will go into effect in January.
Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Allen’s decision to enforce new red flag laws — which allow for temporary confiscation of guns for people a judge deems “at risk” — has spurred a campaign to have him recalled.
Dawn Principe, owner of Sage Hill Arms gun store in Winnemucca and member of the 1,600-member Facebook group behind the recall campaign, said members plan to file a notice of intent with the county on Thursday to recall the sheriff on the grounds he is not “standing up” for their rights. According to the county clerk, the group will have 90 days from when it files to collect 502 signatures and, if successful, proceed with a recall committee.
“They’re taking up a fight against me on something the Legislature has to do, and they think I have the authority not to follow the law,” Allen said in an interview Wednesday with The Nevada Independent. “I do oppose this law. However, it's my not my job to oppose a law; my job is to enforce the law.”
According to Principe, the county has shown more support for protecting Second Amendment rights than the sheriff has. At a well-attended board meeting on Oct. 7, Humboldt County commissioners passed and signed a “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolution, joining Douglas, Elko, Nye and Lyon county commissions, which passed similar resolutions in March.
Since SB143, which contains updated provisions for background checks, and AB291 passed in the Democrat-controlled Legislature in 2019, Principe’s group has taken measures to protect their constitutional rights, which they say would be violated if the laws go into effect in January 2020 as scheduled.
The gun control measures have distressed members of rural and hunting communities who generally handle firearms more regularly than residents in urban centers. In cities, there has been a growing call for tighter gun restrictions in the wake of the shooting two years ago in Las Vegas and another in Gilroy, California earlier this year, in which the shooter used a gun purchased legally in Nevada.
Critics are especially concerned that red flag laws could be interpreted in a way that could lead law enforcement to confiscate firearms from law-abiding citizens who do not pose a danger.
Allen said reports that he said he would ‘seize guns out of their homes when they weren’t home,’ took his words out of context.
“What the questioning was is, ‘[Do] you get a SWAT team to go into the house?’ We do whatever we do to make it as safe as possible. And if what’s as safe as possible is to wait for that individual to leave the house, then that’s what we’ll do,” Allen said. “Most of the time there will be other laws that we’ll be able to apply.”
At the end of September, Allen attended a packed town hall where Humboldt residents, law enforcement and officials discussed the implications of the new gun control laws. Allen said he had presented information at that meeting about how concerned citizens may go through the process of appealing to deem the laws unconstitutional and reverse them.
The sheriff said law enforcement wouldn’t go “door to door, house to house” to take people’s guns, as some fear, clarifying that police would have to follow court orders and would have discretion to use other laws, such as domestic violence laws, that can be applied if law enforcement needed to take firearms from high-risk individuals.
“This is about the criminal element in people with serious, serious mental health issues. And [they are] the ones that need to be prohibited from possessing firearms,” Allen said.
Principe maintains that the new laws focus on high-risk and illegal gun owners at the expense of law-abiding citizens. To the counterpoint that tighter gun controls would have prevented the Gilroy shooter from purchasing his weapon in Nevada, she said the new laws do not guarantee an end to that sort of gun violence.
“The poor guy who sold that gun to the [Gilroy shooter], he’s trying to raise money for lawyers. That could happen to any of us,” Principe said on Tuesday. “You can’t infringe on the rights of people who obey the laws to control crazy people.”
As they collect signatures, Principe says the Humboldt recall group members have been working with Stand Up Nevada, which plans to file to recall Gov. Steve Sisolak for his support of the new gun legislation. The group also is working with Nevadans Citizen Action Network, which is raising money to get an injunction to stop AB291— the bill that includes the red flag provisions and bans accessories such as high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.
Allen says he is at a loss as how to sufficiently address Humboldt County residents’ concerns, and that he has spoken with Attorney General Aaron Ford and sent two requests this month to schedule a meeting with the governor on how to best enforce the laws, but has not heard back.
In response to several sheriffs’ statements in March that they would not enforce SB143, Sisolak said that he “[looked] forward to working with Attorney General Ford and local law enforcement” to review ways to enforce the law.
Sisolak did not answer a question from The Nevada Independent at an event late last month about whether he would support additional gun control laws in light of the Gilroy shooter legally purchasing his weapon from a gun store in Churchill County just south of Humboldt. California lawmakers have requested that Nevada lawmakers do so.
Following the second anniversary of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, supporters of gun-control legislation are holding on to the slimmest of hopes for passing new laws, aiming to find a path forward in the face of a narrowing window for congressional action.
The ongoing impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump pressured the Ukrainian president in a July phone call to investigate a political opponent has sapped the momentum for action spurred after August shootings in Texas, Ohio and California. Trump’s silence on what legislation he will support is another impediment.
But despite the low probability for action, supporters of gun-control measures, including the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, remain hopeful and believe extreme risk-protection order legislation is the most likely candidate for congressional action. Also known as red flag laws, the risk-protection orders allow family members or law-enforcement officers to obtain court orders to take away guns from people who are mentally unstable or have threatened to harm themselves or others.
“I think that has a chance of passage,” said CSGV Director of Political Communications Andrew Patrick of a red-flag bill. Adzi Vokhiwa, federal affairs manager at the Giffords Law Center, agreed that a red-flag bill is among the likely measures with bipartisan support.
Patrick said that one thing that could generate momentum for the issue is another tragedy.
“We hope we don't, but it's possible we see another horrible shooting and this issue comes to the top of [the president’s] attention again,” Patrick said.
Gun-control advocates are also hedging their bets, looking to the 2020 elections with the goal of electing lawmakers who are more sympathetic to their cause. They also argue that the issue attracts younger and minority voters, which will be important up and down the ballot in places such as Nevada, where one in five residents was born in another country.
Besides red-flag laws, experts say expanded background checks are also in play. A third measure, legislation to ban high-capacity magazines that is sponsored by Rep. Dina Titus, is expected to pass the House this year but is unlikely to clear the Senate.
Of these, red-flag laws have the best chance of passage. The House Judiciary Committee approved a risk-protection measure last month that is expected to clear the House before the end of the year. The bill, which provides funding to states to enact red-flag statutes, passed on a party-line 22 to 16 vote. But in the Senate, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal are working on a version that could win enough support from Republicans in both chambers.
The full House also approved universal background check legislation in August. The White House and key senators, including Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, have been in discussions after the August shootings on an enhanced background-checks bill, but nothing has materialized from the talks.
Attorney General Bill Barr last month was in talks with Senate Republicans on a bill to expand background checks, but the White House distanced itself from the proposal following pushback from the National Rifle Association. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he would not bring legislation to the floor that Trump does not back.
A Marist/PBS NewsHour/NPR poll conducted in September found that 83 percent of respondents believe that background checks should be required if someone wants to buy a gun at a gun show or through a private sale. Under current law, unlicensed sellers are not required to perform background checks on prospective buyers.
With the uncertainty of action by Congress, advocates have also begun to set their sights on the 2020 elections.
Earlier this month in Las Vegas, Giffords Law Center and March For Our Lives, the group started by student survivors of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, hosted a forum where nine of the top Democratic presidential hopefuls talked about their plans for preventing gun violence and mass shootings. Sen. Bernie Sanders could not attend after suffering a heart attack.
“I’m just proud that everybody has a plan,” said Stephanie Pizzoferrato, a Las Vegas resident who became an activist after losing her daughter to a stray bullet in 2011. “That is a huge step in the right direction. So that makes me feel confident moving into 2020."
Democratic incumbents in the top-of-the-ticket races in Nevada—Rep. Susie Lee in the 3rd district and Rep. Steven Horsford in the 4th—consistently backed gun legislation that House Democratic leaders have put on the floor. Both are members of the House Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, as is Titus.
“It's the issue of our generation, we have an entire generation of kids that identify as this whole shooting generation,” said Christian Heyne who is the vice president of policy at Brady, the gun violence prevention group named for President Ronald Reagan’s former press secretary, Jim Brady, who was shot during an assassination attempt in 1981. “To see a slate of Democratic candidates running for president making this a priority issue, making this an issue that not only are they talking about, but they're running on I think that is significant. And I think it shows the direction that the country is going.”
MGM Resorts International has agreed to pay up to $800 million to the victims of the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival shooting on the Las Vegas Strip in October 2017 that claimed the lives of 58 and injured more than 800.
Under the proposed settlement agreement, the victims of the shooting have agreed to dismiss all pending litigation against MGM Resorts, which owns the Mandalay Bay, where the killer Stephen Paddock rained down bullets from a hotel room on the 32nd floor and into the crowd of 22,000 below. MGM Resorts will pay between $735 million and $800 million depending on the number of victims who ultimately participate in the settlement.
Robert Eglet, one of the lawyers who represented the victims, said in a statement Thursday that the settlement marked a “milestone in the recovery process” for thousands of victims and their families. He said that the announcement represents “good corporate citizenship” by MGM Resorts, which took a significant public relations hit last year after taking the pre-emptive step of suing the victims in an attempt to shield itself from liability.
“We believe that the terms of this settlement represent the best outcome for our clients and will provide the greatest good for those impacted by these events,” Eglet said.
About 4,400 victims, represented by more than 60 law firms, are claimants in the litigation, Eglet said. How much of a payout they will receive remains to be seen.
The court is expected to appoint an independent claims administrator to evaluate each claim and allot settlements out of the fund — a process that likely won’t be completed until late 2020. The third-party claims administrator will determine a system for doling out the settlement funds, taking into consideration the circumstances of the victim, such as loss of a loved one, physical injury or emotional distress, Eglet said.
“While nothing will be able to bring back the lives lost or undo the horrors so many suffered on that day, this settlement will provide fair compensation for thousands of victims and their families,” he said.
The settlement also averts a protracted legal battle, which Eglet said could have dragged on for more than a decade. In reaching the settlement, MGM Resorts has admitted no liability.
Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts, called the agreement a “major step” and one the company had “hoped for a long time would be possible.
"We have always believed that prolonged litigation around these matters is in no one's best interest,” Murren said in a statement. “It is our sincere hope that this agreement means that scenario will be avoided."
The settlements will be funded by MGM Resorts’ insurers with a minimum of $735 million, but the resort has up to $751 million in coverage. MGM Resorts is expected to add any additional amounts needed to fund claims up to $800 million.
The gaming company was involved in negotiations with the law firms for nearly eight months.
Eglet, who harshly criticized MGM Resorts when the company tried to avoid liability by invoking the little-known federal law called the SAFETY Act, reversed course during a Thursday news conference. He lavished praise on MGM Resorts, the largest employer in Nevada, calling the company a “shining example of what corporations can do in America.”
Still, Eglet acknowledged he was skeptical of MGM Resorts’ insistence that it was trying to consolidate the lawsuits to avoid lengthy litigation.
“I was wrong,” he said Thursday. “They proved that to me in the first several weeks of this mediation.”
Co-counsel Kevin Boyle, who also represented victims involved in the litigation, said the outcome — a major corporation aiding victims of a mass shooting — could drive change by spurring the business world to advocate for common-sense laws that may prevent such tragedies.
“Those powerful companies can put pressure on the government to make real change in this country,” he said.
The settlement announcement comes two days after the two-year anniversary of the mass shooting and one day after nine Democratic presidential candidates participated in Las Vegas-based forum addressing gun violence.
Eglet waded into the ongoing debate, saying Congress should repeal federal legislation that grants firearm manufacturers immunity from civil liability.
“Why do the gun manufacturers get a free ride?” he said. “If you want to do something about the gun violence in this country, repeal that statute and let American juries decide if the risk of putting these type of weapons of mass murder on the street outweighs the benefit. I have a feeling the American juries would stop the sale and cause a lot of incentive to the gun manufacturers to stop making and selling these type of weapons in this country if they were subject to liability.”
This story has been translated and edited from its original Spanish version.
On a hot July day, Angelica Cervantes carefully pulls some CDs from a small handbag and passes them out to people attending a community event hosted by an immigrant group in Las Vegas.
The CDs feature three songs that she wrote, an audio representation of her family’s strength, and a way to keep alive the memory of Erick Silva. He was her son, a security guard killed in the Oct. 1 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.
Cervantes’ home is filled with mementos and T-shirts printed with the words "our hero forever." Silva would have turned 23 on Aug. 19.
"His co-workers tell us that when the shooting started people ran and they told him to save himself," Cervantes said tearfully during a recent interview. "But he stood there getting people out. That’s why they called him a hero, because he didn’t run ... he was always ready to give up his life for others."
Silva, who was known for his smile and his sense of altruism, managed to save seven people.
"I want to express that in my heart, 58 angels live on," Cervantes, a native of Mexico, wrote on the back cover of the album. "And hopefully they can also live in the hearts of everyone in America and in Las Vegas."
The idea to write the songs was a suggestion from loved ones, who knew that sooner or later, the guests who came to her home after Silva’s untimely death would leave and she would then have to face her grief alone. She wrote them a few months after the shooting happened, when she felt she couldn’t muster the strength to leave the house.
"... But heavens claimed him, another star. His name was Erick. Now he’s watching over you and me. A hero who died," goes one song called "Las Vegas Still Strong." It joins a song called "Your name and your story" and another called "Las Vegas Still Strong" — all of which were set to energetic music and sung by artist Oscar Roman.
Adversities and dreams
As they received condolences and messages of support in the aftermath, the family — Cervantes, her husband Gregorio de la Rosa, a daughter and five sons — also faced unexpected challenges.
A lack of funds for funeral expenses. Insults because of Silva’s Latino origin. Strangers who misled the public asking for money on social media in the family’s name, and even a religious leader who offered to resuscitate Silva for a fee.
"A pastor came over and said, 'Give me this much and I will revive him through God," de la Rosa said, surrounded by pictures and personal items that form a shrine in Silva’s room. "We hadn’t even found his body yet."
In order to pay for the funeral, the family sold tacos from morning till night. Their efforts multiplied as friends and strangers came together to help — bringing food for the family, promoting the taco sale on social media, buying ingredients, and taking time off work to help make the tacos.
"They even brought salsa, and chopped cilantro for the tacos," de la Rosa said. "We had no money, not even to buy flowers, but we found support in the entire community."
They also started getting letters, gifts from other states and countries, and thank you notes from those who survived because of Silva’s courage. They included a message from a survivor who, since the shooting, has married, is raising a three-year-old son and is studying to become a nurse.
"Erick, thanks to you, I have a loving home. And most importantly, thank you for saving my life," Cervantes read from her cell phone during the interview with The Nevada Independent en Español.
In addition to words of encouragement and a steady stream of visits by members of the community, the family has found comfort in giving back.
On the second anniversary of the shooting, they will participate in commemorative events. Later in October, they will hold a tribute for Silva at the East Las Vegas Community Center, and they also plan to create a nonprofit organization on behalf of their son.
Cervantes said the goals of the initiative will be to promote stricter gun laws and help the homeless — a cause that Silva espoused by bringing food to those who were living on the street on Christmas Day.
Two years after the tragedy, the family continues to go to therapy and open the doors of their home to national and international guests. Cervantes is also writing new songs.
"I will keep remembering my son’s legacy ... what more could I wish for than to have him here?" she said, her voice faltering. "We will go ahead and do what he wanted to do, which is to help people. This way we can keep his memory alive and close to us."
On the second anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest shooting in Las Vegas, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles is releasing a “Forever Strong” license plate.
The specialty license plate will raise funds for the Las Vegas Resiliency Center that continues to assist victims of the tragedy. For every “Forever Strong” license plate purchased, $25 from the initial issue and $20 for renewals will go to the Resiliency Center.
“Drivers with this license plate send a clear message that they are strong, compassionate and unwavering in their memory of the lives lost,” Tennille Pereira, director of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, said in a statement. “I commend Governor Sisolak, Clark County and Nevada legislators who made this specialty plate a reality this past legislative session.”
The Resiliency Center, which opened on October 23, 2017, has been helping people affected by the mass shooting. Mental health and behavioral resources, as well as legal services, have been offered to those affected.
The plate features a black and gold heart logo on a gold gradient background that was designed by R&R Partners for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The world “Nevada” is centered at the top and “Forever Strong” is centered at the bottom of the plate.
“Our residents can be proud of the strength we showed as a community in response to 1 October and the support we continue to offer victims of the incident through the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center,” Clark County Commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said in a statement. “We appreciate the governor and Legislature working with Clark County on this worthwhile effort.”
State lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 333, which created the “Vegas Strong” license plates, during this year’s legislative session.
The specialty plate will cost $62 with standard numbering and $97 for personalized plates, plus standard registration fees. The annual renewal cost will be $30 for standard plates and $50 for personalized plates.