Nevada business interests make their case to Congress for COVID-19 liability protection

East front of the U.S. Capitol.

Following guidelines recently issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak for a phased re-opening of the state’s economy, Nevada businesses are looking to the federal government for protection from customer and worker lawsuits should they contract COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“There's just this concern that it's now a very broad liability issue,” said Randi Thompson, state director of National Federation of Independent Business Nevada, the state arm of the national small-business advocacy organization.

Supporters of including liability protection in the next coronavirus relief got a boost from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has pledged that “if there’s any red line, it’s on litigation.” But liability-protection opponents, including unions and trial lawyers, are pushing Democrats to resist that effort. 

An NFIB survey of its members nationally showed that 70 percent said increased liability is among their major concerns about re-opening. The issue is that lawsuits cost money to settle or fight, and many small businesses already operate on low cash reserves and thin margins.

“It'll put businesses out of business, bottom line, especially small businesses,” Thompson said.

One Las Vegas business, Nacho Daddy, initially required workers to sign a waiver affirming that the business would not be held legally responsible if the worker contracted COVID-19. Nacho Daddy ultimately forwent the waiver after a public backlash. 

NFIB Executive Director Karen Harned said the Nacho Daddy scenario underscores the need for legislation. 

Paul Moradkhan of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce said that businesses want the assurance that, if they are following federal, state and local safety guidelines, they will not be liable if a customer or worker catches COVID-19.

“It’s not just for us, it’s for every state. Every business community across the country is trying to get clarity and direction on what they have to do to do the right thing to protect their employees and customers,” Moradkhan said.

The Las Vegas chamber signed on to a letter Wednesday from a coalition of chambers to every member of Congress calling on them “to pass timely, temporary and targeted liability relief legislation to provide businesses a safe harbor from unwarranted lawsuits.”

Harned added that while the issuance of federal guidelines would help some bigger businesses, NFIB wants its members, which average 10 employees or fewer, to have the flexibility to do what’s safest for their businesses.

“We are always skeptical—if not hostile—to one-size-fits-all policies, and when it comes to making your workplace safe for customers and employees, I definitely think that's the case,” Harned said. 

“We just don't want every business having to be held to some gold standard to ensure that they're not sued because that gold standard may not work for them, may not make sense, they may not even know how to implement it,” Harned continued, adding that as long as a business is making a good-faith effort, “that really should be enough.”

The NFIB released a list of principles that it would like to see inform any legislation, including having the workers’ compensation system handle claims from workers alleging they contracted COVID-19 while on the job and shielding businesses from liability from customers or third-parties unless they can prove the business knowingly failed to develop and implement a reasonable plan for reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 — and that the failure caused the injury.

The push comes as Sisolak is looking to transition to Phase Two of the state’s reopening plan after successfully completing Phase One, in which businesses such as restaurants and hair salons were allowed to open on a restricted basis. At a recent press conference, Sisolak said that it was too early to know what the reopening of those businesses had done to infection metrics or when the state will move to the next phase, but he said health indicators are pointing in the right direction.

As businesses in Nevada and other states make their case to Congress, enacting liability protection will not be easy as the issue touches on a political fault line that divides Democrats and Republicans. 

Labor unions, which tend to support Democrats, have raised concerns about providing liability protection that they argue could threaten the safety of workers. Trial lawyers, who also typically back Democrats, have also opposed liability protection. The American Association for Justice, a trial lawyer interest group, commissioned a Democratic polling firm earlier in May to help make their case. The poll that showed that 64 percent of respondents said they opposed giving companies such immunity.

Good government groups such as Public Citizen contend a federal liability shield would trump state laws that protect consumers and workers. 

Business owners, for their part, often tend to back Republicans, and McConnell has made liability protection a top issue for the GOP in the next relief package.

“We are very, very, very happy that Senator McConnell has taken such a strong stance on that because we think it's critical to the success of getting the economy going and businesses re-opened,” Harned said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she has no red lines, leaving open the possibility of a deal on a package that includes a liability protection provision. The $3 trillion HEROES Act, the Democrats’ latest effort to pass another relief measure, included a provision requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop and issue a temporary final standard to protect employees from workplace exposure to the virus.

The partisan split also shows up among members of the delegation when they and their offices were recently asked about the issue. 

Rep. Mark Amodei, the state’s only congressional Republican, said that if a business is complying with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance, it should be protected. 

“If you've done that, then quite frankly, that doesn't mean you get out of jail free, but it should go a long ways toward going, unless you got something that says that they should have known that wasn't good enough in a situation, that ought to be, you know, they did the best they could,” Amodei said.

He also the Legislature should weigh in. “Quite frankly, it's a state issue,” Amodei said. “States have done all sorts of tort reform and if you don't believe me ask the insurance companies because their rates differ by what the rules are in a state.”

His view differed with that of Rep. Dina Titus, who believes worker safety should be paramount. 

She said she’s heard about the need for liability protection from the restaurant and franchise interest groups “but you've got to protect the workers,” Titus said.

“Protecting the company from the workers, I think is not going to go very far with the Democratic majority in the House,” Titus said.

Other members were more circumspect. 

Rep. Susie Lee said those “who have proven to be negligent by needlessly putting workers, families, and consumers’ lives at risk must be held accountable. At the same time, there is a difference between negligence and the initial uncertainty surrounding this unprecedented pandemic.” 

“Any language limiting liability in upcoming COVID-19 relief deals must first acknowledge and differentiate between those who lacked credible information on the true threat of the coronavirus, and outright negligence from those who understood the threat and failed to take appropriate action to mitigate its spread,” she continued, adding that liability protection should be coupled with strengthening workplace safety standards for airborne diseases.

Rep. Steven Horsford, who did not directly say whether he supported or opposed liability protection, said he was put off by McConnell’s attempt to use the issue as leverage “with the need to provide more relief and especially assistance to families, workers and businesses.”

Earlier this year, McConnell had said he would not support funding for states and localities in the next package and recommended that they seek bankruptcy protection. He later said he would only agree to state and local funding if the package also included liability protection. 

“I understand not getting your way and having to talk things through,” Horsford continued. “ can't start off saying ‘let the states go bankrupt’ and then move to ‘I will only consider something if it has liability.’”

Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen both said they’ve been in touch on the issue with the state business community, but also were noncommittal.

“She continues to have discussions with her colleagues, hear from businesses and vital industries in state, and engage with the insurance industry to evaluate potential bipartisan legislative solutions on the issue,” Cortez Masto’s office said.

Rosen’s office said the senator “has been participating in a number of discussions with Nevada’s business community to hear about the challenges and concerns around liability issues that business owners are facing in the wake of COVID-19. Senator Rosen is working hard to help secure PPE and other critical resources for health care and frontlines workers in Nevada as the state starts to lift restrictions in place as part of its Phase One planning.”

From marijuana to coffee shops, Nevada businesses cautiously opened doors after COVID-19 shutdown

As the state emerged from its coronavirus-induced hibernation over the weekend, Nevada residents faced a personal decision: Should I stay or should I go?

Even with sunny weather and a go-ahead from Gov. Steve Sisolak — who last week announced the state’s scheduled reopening date would be moved up by more than a week — many Nevadans remained cautious about going out to dinner, shopping or other activities put on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephen Lafer, a Reno resident, has limited his excursions over the past seven weeks to the grocery store, Costco for his prescription medication, Home Depot for gardening supplies and the occasional takeout dinner. The loosening of restrictions won’t change the 71-year-old’s habits for now.

“I’m in that age group that is vulnerable,” he said. “And, besides that, I kind of feel it’s wrong to go about doing what might possibly enhance the danger of the virus spreading.”

In spite of polls showing some skepticism about reopening too soon, Nevada is not alone. More than half of the states in the country have moved to some kind of gradual reopening, according to a tally kept by the New York Times, even as many continue to not see the kind of continued decreases in COVID-19 cases recommended by public health experts before reopening.

Local governments say they have taken a gentle approach to enforcement, focusing on educating businesses and residents rather than bringing down the hammer on crowds. Meanwhile, businesses that reopened say they’re navigating a world of broader safety precautions and lower volumes but grateful to break out of cumbersome delivery-only models.

Lafer, a retired University of Nevada, Reno, professor, doesn’t have a timeline for when he might feel comfortable patronizing more stores or restaurants. He said it depends on the circumstances. 

When a group of anti-shutdown protestors marched down his street several weeks ago, it didn’t leave him feeling confident about the broader public’s participation in safety measures.

“That kind of behavior bothers me immensely,” he said. “It makes me wonder whether or not a democracy is a good idea.”

Village Barber Shop in Reno opens with COVID-19 procedures on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

But the gradual reopening came as a welcome relief to some people. Jon Nichols, 45, said it felt like “Christmas shopping” walking into a Total Wine & More and viewing products in person. He also stopped by a drive-through sportsbook at the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas and dined at the off-Strip Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse.

Nichols, whose brother died by suicide years ago, said that loss has instilled in him a zest for life. He worries what prolonged isolation will do for people’s mental health.

“I do my best and I keep distance, but I also feel like I’ve gotta live,” he said.

Nichols, a Henderson resident, said he knows some people will judge his decision. But the software engineer is quick to point out that he doesn’t align himself with the protesters gathering outside state buildings. He dons face masks in crowded public settings like grocery stores and respects others’ decision to stay home. 

From the safety precautions he observed this weekend, though, he’s not afraid to visit certain places. 

“It was kind of a quiet environment. It was cool,” Nichols said of his dining experience. “I certainly never felt like I came in even 10 feet of anyone other than the staff.”

Gary Sessa, 53, just wants people to display a bit more patience. As he picked up takeout from Nacho Daddy in Las Vegas, he witnessed a disgruntled group leave the restaurant after being told they needed to make a reservation. He felt badly for the staff, who had taken time to ensure proper social distancing inside and outside the restaurant.

“We’re all trying to do what we can to make this work,” he said. “It’s difficult for everybody. There are some people who are trying to make the best of the situation, and there are other people who just want to sit and complain.”

Sessa isn’t ready to dine in at restaurants or take a shopping trip, but it’s mostly because of a medical condition. He has a swollen lymph node in his chest courtesy of a disease called Sarcoidosis. His doctor has advised him to keep a low profile.

“I’m taking it slow,” said Sessa, a teacher at Bonanza High School. “I’d rather let things kind of settle down before I start going into restaurants for any length of time or going to get my hair cut. I’m all for these things being open, but I’ll wait a little longer.”

New requirements

Under Sisolak’s Phase 1 reopening plan, a broader array of retail stores are allowed to open as long as they do not exceed 50 percent of capacity as determined by the local fire marshal. Restaurants are also allowed to open for dine-in service, provided they follow the new capacity rules, space tables six feet apart and employees wear masks at all times.

Personal care services, including barbershops, hair and nail salons, are allowed to open if stations are six feet apart and if employees wear face masks. Customers must make appointments, and walk-ins are prohibited.

Businesses that are not allowed to open include bars, nightclubs, massage parlors, spas, gyms, fitness studios, brothels, strip clubs, movie theaters (except for drive-ins), bowling alleys, live sporting events and casinos.

Wingfield Park in Downtown Reno, along the Truckee River on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Local governments respond

Sisolak’s Phase 1 directive contained plenty of details on mandatory and recommended best practices for different industry types, but was short on one topic area: enforcement.

The emergency directive merely authorizes local, city and county governments to enforce the directive and industry-specific guidelines, with suggestions on possible penalties including fines or suspension/revocation of business licenses.

But many jurisdictions have avoided taking direct enforcement action against businesses or individuals who may be violating social distancing rules or other requirements ordered under Sisolak’s directive.

North Las Vegas spokesman Patrick Walker said the municipality had worked collaboratively with other Southern Nevada governments to create a business reopening guide, and sent out Sisolak’s guidance document on Thursday to all of the city’s 6,200 business license owners.

Walker said the city’s enforcement staff was investigating complaints as they came in, but had received no complaints as of mid-day Monday.

“Our businesses thus far have done an outstanding job complying with the previous emergency directives, and we anticipate that cooperation to continue,” he wrote in an email.

Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week that the county would work with the Southern Nevada Health District, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and licensing boards to conduct business inspections, but did not say whether the county would take any additional steps to enforce social distancing or other requirements. 

Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said business license agents visited more than 200 businesses over the weekend to help answer questions and offer guidance on how to comply with the required social distancing steps needed under Phase 1. He said the county did not receive any complaints over the weekend about businesses not following those guidelines.

It appears most jurisdictions are taking more of a public education than an enforcement route. Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said she had heard scattered reports of people or businesses over the weekend not following social distancing rules, but that city code enforcement had generally tried to give businesses leeway in correcting issues before taking stronger corrective action.

“This is something that people are not used to, your customers aren't used to, your businesses aren't used to this,” she said. “It's a whole new environment that we have to adapt to.”

A city of Reno spokesman confirmed that outside of a few complaints of people not wearing masks — which is a recommendation, not a requirement — the city has not had any major complaints of businesses violating the governor’s orders.

Even so, businesses opening their doors now will be greeted with a much different environment, given lingering concerns about COVID-19 as well as rampant unemployment. Schieve, who owns second-hand clothing stores in Reno, said her businesses have not reopened and when they do, she expects much different consumer behavior.

“You don't just turn on the lights and everything goes back to normal,” she said. “Some businesses will do incredibly well and others, I think, are going to struggle if they're not essential or provide a service that people absolutely need right now.”

Randi Thompson, state director of NFIB Nevada, a small business association, agreed.

“If you open, they will come is not necessarily the case right now,” she said. “You’ve got people that are still wanting to hunker down.”

Hand To Paws dog groomer in Reno with a sign explaining COVID-19 procedures on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Businesses navigate a new normal

Uncertainty about customer counts didn’t stop some businesses from opening their doors Saturday on short notice from the governor. Eric Jacobson and Kyle Howell, co-owners of Recycled Records in Midtown Reno, ordered gallons of hand sanitizer and wiped down the store for their reopening.

They estimated roughly two-thirds of customers wore masks, with everyone else maintaining a safe distance from one another.

“We haven't had to give anybody a hard time about getting too close to other people,” Jacobson said. “Everybody's been really, really great.”

Sunday was not as busy, but Howell and Jacobson said they are taking it one day at a time.

“We actually discussed not opening for safety reasons, but we thought we'll just do it this way and it's kind of an experiment and we'll see where that goes,” Jacobson said.

The Thursday announcement that Phase 1 of Sisolak’s reopening plan would begin Saturday surprised Alex Farside, the co-owner of Reno’s Coffee N’ Comics

Farside and his partner had much work to do in less than 48 hours, including setting up a plexiglass shield at the cash register and rearranging the store to increase space between tables.

Farside said it can be hard to hear customers’ orders when they speak through masks, but he’s glad for the chance to talk in person.

“We have a little patio and I went out and put a little sign next to a planter. It says, ‘The party's here!’ even though it's not really, but at least it has sparkles and it looks cute,” he said. “We're trying not to talk about doom and gloom the whole time when people come in.”

Iman Hagagg said new requirements have put a damper on reopening her Las Vegas Egyptian street food restaurant, POTs, which she said can only fit nine people under social distancing requirements. Hagagg is not closing POTs to walk-in diners, but she is also not advertising that it’s open for sit-down meals and hopes to keep serving customers via delivery for now.

“Expectation and reality are two different things,” she said.

She worries about the safety of her customers and staff and is trying to figure out how to open for full service without jeopardizing anyone’s health. 

“The face mask, how are you going to give people the hospitality they deserve?” she mused. “We cannot give the full experience to the customer, I would say.”

Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary in Las Vegas opened its storefront over the weekend after its reopening plan was approved by the Nevada Department of Taxation. Only 10 customers are allowed in the store at once, and customers — not just employees — must wear masks.

There’s even a contingency plan in place for how to address customers who revolt against the mask-wearing provisions.

Owner David Goldwater said allowing storefront sales has opened the dispensary up to customers who only want to spend a small amount of money on cannabis products. Under the original delivery-only model, dispensaries had to provide enough to make the trip worthwhile but not more than state regulators permit. 

“Delivery was tough because in order to do it compliantly you couldn’t have much volume. It didn’t scale,” he said.

Goldwater has added back almost half of his employees — not everyone has been chomping at the bit to come back — and is monitoring demand to see when the time is right to bring back the rest. 

“It’s been as good as can be expected,” he said of the reopening.

Village Barber Shop in Reno opens with COVID-19 procedures on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Salons are among the businesses allowed to reopen in Phase 1 — something that thrilled Alana Davis until she realized only hair and nail salons are included. She doesn’t think it’s fair that lash and waxing salons like hers, Aesthetically Speaking in Reno, are still ordered closed. 

“I personally believe that because the hair stylists were causing an uproar because none of them can file for unemployment, that that’s why [Sisolak] allowed the hair and nails to open,” she said.

While she’s using the extra time before reopening to continue deeply disinfecting and implementing social distancing procedures, she pointed out that estheticians were wearing masks and sterilizing tools with Barbicide well before the pandemic.

“I feel that our sanitation and disinfection policies that were in place prior to this even happening were way more than Walmart or Home Depot,” she said. 

She isn’t worried about volume when the salon finally can reopen. Most of the estheticians are booked solid for three weeks, with lash extensions, eyebrow waxes and Brazilian waxes among the most in-demand services.

Globe Salon co-owner James Reza had planned to open his two Las Vegas hair salon locations on Saturday. But after receiving about 200 calls at each location in a 24-hour period, Reza quickly realized that the salon would need more time to accommodate clients safely.

“It’s hard when we were given 19 hours notice to close, and then we waited anxiously for 49 days, and then given about 36 hours to reopen,” he said. “That was kind of an emotional whipsaw, not to mention the processes of firing up the businesses from essentially a dead stop.”

During those weeks without an appointment, some of those clients did take hair matters into their own hands.

“There are some guests who have laughingly ‘warned’ us of what to expect,” Reza said. “We did our best to encourage guests to wait it out… grown out hair and hair color is a lot easier to fix than someone who tried to freshen their balayage at home or ‘trim’ their bangs with garden shears.”

Reza expects the appointment book will be full for the rest of May. Still, it could be hard to make ends meet long-term by operating at a reduced capacity.

“Operating at partial capacity is not a realistic long term solution for any business,” he said. “But we are happy we can do so right now.”

Small businesses that did not see a rush over the weekend were left dismayed, Thompson said. Given the rapid reopening, she said next weekend will be a better indicator of consumer behavior. By that time, businesses will have had enough time to restock and spread the word about their reopening.

Even then, they know business might be slow for several months.

“There’s some reasons for that no doubt,” Thompson said. “We’ll just live with them and adapt accordingly.”

Reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this story.

October 1 emotions drive debate on bill to ban bump stock devices, give local governments more power

Six days after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a county music concert in Las Vegas, Sandra Jauregui wrote a letter.

It was addressed to friends and family, written on advice of a counselor who told the Democratic Assemblywoman that it could help her process the trauma of having survived the mass shooting on October 1, 2017. On Monday, she read that letter publicly for the first time; detailing how her husband Truman covered her body to protect her from bullets, how she hid under bleachers, ran into gunfire to jump a fence and escape — and how she grappled with the guilt of survival.

“I feel lucky, but I also feel bad that we made it out okay. I don’t feel like I can be happy or that I should be. I know that for every bullet that didn’t hit us it hit somebody else,” she said, reading from the letter. “I feel bad that if I could have taken care of myself, maybe Truman could have done more to help other people. It was so hard seeing people who were hurt and shot and knowing I couldn’t do anything. And just seeing them and knowing it could have been us.”

Those painful memories of the nation’s worst mass shooting in recent history — which left 58 people dead and hundreds injured — took center stage during a hearing on AB291, a bill sponsored by Jauregui that would ban firearm modifications such as bump stocks, the devices used by the shooter to mimic the fire of automatic weapons and expend 1,049 rounds in just 11 minutes.

The measure also would reverse a 2015 state law giving the Legislature preeminent authority to regulate and oversee gun laws and decrease the blood alcohol content limit for firearm possession from 0.1 to 0.08.

Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald speaks outside the state Legislature on Monday, April 1, 2019 (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

The hearing drew impassioned testimony from supporters who implored lawmakers to ban the devices and give local governments flexibility on gun laws not afforded to the state’s part-time Legislature, and opponents who said the bill’s language was overly broad and would inadvertently make anyone with a minor firearm modification — not just a bump stock — an instant felon.

The hearing marked the second high-profile measure related to firearm regulation heard by lawmakers this session; Democratic lawmakers in February introduced and quickly passed a measure designed to implement a stalled 2016 ballot initiative requiring background checks on most private party gun sales or transfers.

Despite the emotional testimony, the bill is also likely to overlap with federal regulations. In December, the Department of Justice announced a long-anticipated administrative ban on “bump-stock” devices, which went into effect last month. Owners of the devices — estimates are around 500,000 such devices have been sold — have 90 days to turn in or destroy the devices, or otherwise face criminal penalties.

During the hearing, Republican lawmakers peppered Jauregui and bill presenters with questions on the bill, mostly regarding language they said was broader than similar federal restrictions on the same bump stock devices and could result in unexpected consequences. Republican Sen. Keith Pickard said participants in shooting competitions often trade out trigger systems for easier or more rapid-firing modifications and that his interpretation of the bill meant that those types of modifications would be illegal.

“It in no way approximates the rate of an automatic weapon, but as I read this, this bill would make possession of those weapons illegal,” he said. “So they’d become criminals as of the day of adoption.”

Chelsea Parsons, an attorney with the left-leaning Center for American Progress who helped present the bill, acknowledged that the measure was designed to be broader than federal regulations on bump stocks as a way to “anticipate future innovation by the gun industry.”

Jauregui said she would be willing to amend the bill to make it better reflect her intent, which was to ban any device that made a semi-automatic weapon fire like a fully automatic weapon, and not to make all weapon modifications illegal.

“We wanted to make sure that we were covering our tracks, so in a year or two if we just banned bump stocks, that somebody wasn’t going to create new technology or innovate new technology that essentially is a bump stock but call it something different,” she said in a follow-up interview.

The Democratic assemblywoman also presented a conceptual amendment to the bill clarifying that local governments have “limited authority” to create or adopt ordinances more stringent than state law on firearms, accessories or ammunition. It comes as the bill repeals a section of law approved in 2015 as part of a slew of wide-ranging firearms bills that expanded the definition of justifiable homicide, limited the ability of a person with a restraining order related to domestic violence to own a firearm and gave the Legislature preeminent authority over state gun laws.

Former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and Commissioner Justin Jones both testified that the preemption laws had frustrated the county’s ability to quickly enact policies such as banning bump stocks or limiting public carry of firearms during high-density events like New Year’s Eve on the Las Vegas Strip.

“Local gun regulation is not and never will be a perfect solution to gun violence,” Giunchigliani said. “Nor is it a substitute for federal or state reform. But local governments are better positioned to deal with matters like public carrying. Commissioners know there’s no one-size-fits all solution that covers crowded urban cities and sparsely populated rural areas.”

Much of the testimony from supporters veered to the emotional. Heather Sallan, who also attended and survived the concert shooting, told lawmakers that she was wearing the same boots she had worn to the concert as a reminder of the damage caused by the shooting.

“No one attending a concert or an event of any kind should be able to explain the whistle sounds of a bullet so close to their left ear that their hair moves. But I can,” she said. “What a bump stock was made for was not relevant. What a bump stock was used for changed my life forever.”

Dan Reid, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the bill’s removal of the preemption laws could likely open the door to local governments introducing drastic gun control measures, such as bans on magazine size or certain types of ammunition.

“This is incredibly problematic, to expect someone to know every single jurisdiction, because the way I’m reading the preemption statute with it being completely repealed, it’s open season on anyone to pass any sort of ordinance,” he said.

Nevada Firearms Coalition lobbyist Randi Thompson asked Democratic lawmakers — who have made criminal justice reform a top priority this session — if they were comfortable adding penalties that could result in more Nevadans going to jail.

“Once the governor signs this bill as presented today, thousands of Nevadans will instantly become felons,” she said. “This does not seem like the kind of reform you’re advocating for this session.”

But state government officials don’t expect the measure to result in more incarceration or a large fiscal impact. A fiscal note from the state Department of Corrections estimated the bill would cost less than $10,000 in future budget cycles, estimating that it would result in about four additional inmates per year.

In addition to the federal administrative rule, at least 11 states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — and some cities have banned bump stocks, primarily since the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

It’s still unclear and increasingly unlikely that lawmakers will take up a call made by Gov. Steve Sisolak on the 2018 campaign trail to ban “assault” weapons. Jauregui declined to say in an interview if she would support such as a ban, saying she thought that decision should be kept on the local level.

“I really think we need to empower the local governments,” she said in an interview. “Because we might not need to ban, maybe in just some sensitive areas. So I think we eliminate this top-down approach and leave it to local governments.”

Fix sought on sales tax issue for out-of-state gun sales

A “small but confusing” portion of Nevada tax law that requires gun dealers to collect sales taxes on out-of-state gun sales — despite not actually selling the gun — is again up for consideration in the Legislature.

Members of the Assembly Committee on Taxation heard details of AB113 during a meeting on Thursday, which would clarify that the more than 780 federally licensed gun dealers who process an out-of-state sale and background check do not have to collect sales tax on the transaction or count the sale as part of their total revenue, possibly affecting their tax liability.

The bill is proposed by Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus, who said the measure would clarify tax law on out-of-state gun sales, which under federal law are required to be processed through a federally licensed dealer and require a background check. But Titus said that requirement left out-of-state gun sales in a sort of “no-man's-land” in terms of online sales, where sales tax is generally required to be collected by the out-of-state seller through a sales and use tax form.

A similar concept was proposed by former Republican Assemblywoman Jill Dickman in the 2015 Legislature, but the bill never made it off the Assembly floor.

But Titus and supporters, including Nevada Firearms Coalition lobbyist Randi Thompson, said the situation had changed over the last four years; businesses are now required to pay the state’s Commerce Tax on all revenue greater than $4 million, which could affect firearms dealers required to count the processing of out-of-state sales towards their yearly revenue. The measure could also be affected by passage of SB143, which requires nearly all private guns sales and transfers to first undergo a background check.

“It’s not a huge issue, but it’s a confusing issue, and one that we’ve been trying to get resolved for several years now,” Thompson said.

The state Department of Taxation approved a regulation last year requiring any out-of-state retailer to collect and remit sales tax if they meet thresholds of $100,000 in taxable sales or 200 transactions in Nevada. The department and other local governments said in fiscal notes that they were not able to determine what effect, if any, the bill would have on collecting tax revenue given that it doesn’t collect information on how many out-of-state gun sales are facilitated through federally-licensed dealers.

Several firearms dealers, the National Rifle Association and retail association lobbyist Bryan Wachter testified in favor of the bill, saying it would reduce confusion for firearms dealers and treat guns more fairly in terms of online sales tax. A lobbyist for the city of Las Vegas testified as neutral, raising concerns that requiring out-of-state sellers to collect and assess the sales tax (a move rarely done) would result in reduced sales tax collection.

Reno Guns & Range owner Debbie Block told lawmakers that although dealers can assess a small fee on processing an out-of-state sale, the hassle of collecting the sales tax on a sale she and other dealers technically don’t make didn’t make sense.

“The only reason that it’s going through me, the transferer, is to do the background check,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to be responsible for collecting the sales tax, too. I’m just making sure everybody is meeting federal laws to transfer a firearm.”