Nevada voters technically approved criminal background checks for private gun sales in November. On Sunday, as Stephen Paddock fired at hundreds of Las Vegas concertgoers from the 32nd floor of his hotel, both sides in the gun debate were inching closer to a legal battle over whether to enforce the new law.
The Post reports that investigators think Paddock bought some two dozen guns legally over the past few years, including from a gun shop in Mesquite, Nev. As we learn more about how Paddock got the specific weapons he used to commit mass murder, here's a primer on the tug-of-war over gun laws in the state in which he committed mass murder.
2013: A background-check bill vetoed
In 2013, motivated by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Democrats managed to heave a universal-background-check bill through the state legislature, which they controlled.
But GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it, saying it would unnecessarily infringe on the rights of people who want to give a gun to a family member or neighbor.
The bill would have imposed “unreasonable burdens and harsh penalties upon law-abiding Nevadans, while doing little to prevent criminals from unlawfully obtaining guns,” he said.
2015: A gun bill with something for everyone to love and hate
In 2015, Sandoval signed a law banning people convicted of domestic violence from getting a gun. It was a major get for gun-control advocates.
But folded into the bill were a number of other measures that substantially loosened the state's gun laws. The law increased the number of states with gun permits that Nevada recognizes, overrode more liberal counties — like the one where Las Vegas sits — from passing their own gun-control measures, and expanded the definition of justifiable homicide to include people who protect themselves from an attack while in their car.
2016: Nevada voters narrowly approve background checks
Gun-control advocates decided they needed to go around politicians to get something done. In 2016, a background check ballot measure financed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun-control group got on the ballot, despite opposition from the state's top Republicans, including Sandoval. The measure passed by fewer than 10,000 votes of more than 1 million cast, with support mostly from the heavily Democratic Las Vegas area.
Suddenly, Nevada went from being known as a state that allows assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and has no limit on how many guns you can buy at one time, to joining seven, mostly liberal states that have expanded background checks since Sandy Hook. It was the second state since Washington state to expand background checks by ballot in recent memory.
(This story has been corrected to clarify Nevada was the second state in recent memory to expand background check by ballot, but the eighth since Sandy Hook to expand background checks any way.)
“This fight was in honor of all those killed by senseless gun violence, and today we are one step closer to making Nevada a safer place for all of us,” said Elaine Wynn, a member of the ballot measure's advisory board, at the time.
2017: A legal battle over background checks
But the celebration was premature. State officials stalled the background check before it could ever be implemented. In response to a question from a state public safety official about whether to start doing background checks, Nevada's attorney general, Adam Laxalt (R), determined that the bill couldn't be enforced because it mandated that the FBI do the background checks, and the FBI said it wouldn't do them alone. (The state already has its own system for private sales, in which it combines state and federal records.)
Laxalt is expected to announce his candidacy for governor to replace the term-limited Sandoval any day now.
The background-check law sat in limbo until a week before Sunday's mass shooting, when a gun-control group threatened to sue the state if it didn't start taking steps to implement background checks. The state could have done more to get the FBI to start doing criminal background checks for private sales in Nevada, they argue.
“This is an issue that can and should be easily resolved,” wrote gun-control lawyer Mark Ferrario to Sandoval in a letter dated Sept. 25.
Sandoval's office did not reply to a request for comment. They told the Nevada Independent that Sandoval will request an opinion from the attorney general''s office on whether the state can share background check duty.
Gun-control groups weren't happy with that statement.
“It is unconscionable that, after months of refusing to enforce the will of the people, the Governor is now passing the buck,” said John Feinblatt, president of Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety, in a statement.
The fight is likely to stretch out for months if not years in the courts. In the meantime, Nevada remains one of the easiest states in the nation in which to buy guns, despite a number of recent gun-control advocates' victories.
University of Las Vegas political science professor David Damore doesn't think what happened Sunday will move either side closer to compromise. “I think the partisan lines are pretty clear on this,” he said.
Nevada mirrors the national environment: Republicans want to loosen gun laws, Democrats want to tighten them. Which means the fate of Nevada's gun laws rests not on what people do with their guns but on whom people elect to make their laws.