Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Nevada struggles to plug holes in gun laws

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

CARSON CITY, Nev. – Nevada state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is a Republican in a state that loves its guns.

His idea is modest: restrict people deemed by psychiatrists to be mentally ill from owning guns for three years. The bill ought to be embraced, especially in a state that ranks third worst in gun-related suicide, and where lawmakers became so alarmed by the erratic behavior of one of their own that they took the extraordinary step of forcing him from office two weeks ago.

Rational politician that he is, Kieckhefer walked into the audience during a break in the hearing on his Senate Bill 277, and assured a National Rifle Association lobbyist that he intended to take the lobbyist's concerns to heart.

For now, however, the NRA opposes the measure, as do others including the Reno-area public defender, who frets about due process violations of gun owners who happen to be unstable, and a firearms dealer who warned that insomniacs might be denied their Second Amendment rights, along with military veterans.

"Is this person really bad off, or are they just having a few flashbacks?" Richard Brengman, who advertises "suppressor and machinegun sales," asked of a hypothetical veteran who might be denied a gun because of post-traumatic stress disorder.

After a hearing on his bill this week, Kieckhefer said he didn't know whether he had the votes for passage, though cops support it and Democrats control the Legislature.

"I'm trying to thread the needle," he said.

What happens on the east side of the Sierra affects us on the west side of the summit. As we've learned lately, Nevada authorities have made a habit of busing people from the state psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas to California. And after he was kicked out of the Nevada Legislature, Steven Brooks, the disturbed legislator, sped across the border and was arrested outside Barstow for resisting arrest.

In Congress, Democrats backing gun control seek to expand background checks of gun buyers. If they succeed, the computer system that runs those checks relies on states to deliver the names of people who should not own guns.

That information is incomplete. As Kieckhefer has found, Nevada is one reason why, though it's hardly unique, and that has implications beyond any one state.

In Nevada, like other states, individuals who become so mentally unstable that they are a danger to themselves or others can be placed on 72-hour holds.

Most of them are freed after a few hours or days. Identities of people who merely are placed on 72-hour holds are not added to the federal background check system. Once they are released, they can buy a gun.

In most states, a person's name is entered into the system only after a psychiatrist files a petition to have the individual committed to a psychiatric hospital, a court upholds that petition, and the person is detained. In Nevada, psychiatrists generally don't file commitment petitions, knowing that standards for holding people are strict.

But in the last fiscal year, Silver State psychiatrists, with concurrence of at least one other mental health care professional, filed 583 petitions to have individuals committed to the state hospital in northern Nevada. Not a single petition was granted.

There are reasons why, but often, the individual's attorney found ways to avoid formal commitment. Think about it. Psychiatrists believed 583 people should have been committed, but they weren't, and so they aren't in the National Instance Criminal Background Check System.

The numbers weren't much better in southern Nevada, where psychiatrists filed 1,953 petitions to hold individuals against their will in the last fiscal year, and 237 were committed.

Kieckhefer has identified a blind spot in the intersection of mental illness and firearms. His bill seeks to fix it by denying individuals the right to buy guns for three years if psychiatrists file petitions to commit them beyond 72 hours. And still, his bill faces opposition from pro-gun groups and public defenders.

California law is very different. Lawmakers here approved legislation more than 20 years ago denying gun ownership for five years to people placed on 72-hour mental health holds. Since then, thousands of individuals have been denied the right to own guns. California laws go only so far.

In the hearing on Kieckhefer's bill, a senator homed in on the due-process argument made by Christopher Frey, lobbyist for the Washoe County Public Defender, by referring to an unstable person who tried to buy a gun at a Skeels sporting goods store near Carson City.

The senator clearly was talking about Brooks, the expelled assemblyman who had threatened legislators, was hospitalized against his will, and would have bought a gun, if a clerk had not recognized him from news accounts and refused to sell to him.

Frey talked about the "grievous consequence" of being deprived of a fundamental right. The consequence truly would have been grievous if Brooks had gotten a gun and used it against himself or someone else. There's no due process in death.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.