Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Nevada sends us patients, firearms

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

A day before the six-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the National Rifle Association extolled Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval for "standing up for the Second Amendment."

Sandoval, a rising Republican star, had followed through on a pledge to veto one of the few gun control measures ever to have emerged from the Nevada Legislature.

Sandoval's veto message two weeks ago said Senate Bill 221 would have eroded "Nevadans' Second Amendment rights under the United States Constitution" and subjected "law-abiding citizens to criminal prosecution."

Not wanting to let the moment pass, the NRA urged its members to email Sandoval and "thank him for standing up for the Second Amendment and law-abiding gun owners in Nevada."

In reality, the legislation would not have infringed on gun owners' rights. Rather, it would have required all gun buyers to undergo background checks, a basic step to ensure that firearms don't end up in the hands of felons and people who are severely mentally ill.

On the front page of today's Bee, Cynthia Hubert and Phillip Reese offer the latest installment in their dogged investigation into Nevada's reckless policy of busing patients to all corners of the United States from Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas.

Facing loss of federal funding for his state's largest psychiatric hospital, Sandoval halted the busing last month. The exportation of firearms is an entirely different matter.

California has laws protecting against gun sales to felons and people who have a history of severe mental illness. But people so inclined can drive to a Reno gun show, find a private individual with a weapon to sell and throw down sufficient cash to cover the price.

The seller need not ask questions. The buyer doesn't have to offer answers. There's no requirement that private-party sellers run buyers' names through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to check for a history of criminal convictions, domestic violence or mental illness. It's called the gun show loophole.

Legislation by U.S. Sens. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would have closed the gun show loophole nationally. It failed in April. On June 3, the Nevada Legislature gave final approval to Senate Bill 221 to close that state's gun show loophole, only to have Sandoval veto it June 13.

The author, Sen. Justin Jones, a Las Vegas Democrat, viewed it as a stopgap until Congress can pass legislation requiring all sellers nationwide to run background checks. Without a national standard, gun laws in one state are "only as effective as the laws in the next state over."

Nevada's laxity has real world consequences, as the nation learned in March 2010 when John Patrick Bedell, a troubled former engineering student, wounded two Pentagon police officers in Virginia.

Two months earlier, Bedell tried to buy a gun from a California dealer, only to be denied because of his history of hospitalization for mental illness. Nineteen days later, he bought one of his handguns at a Las Vegas gun show, no questions asked.

As part of his research, Dr. Garen Wintemute, a UC Davis medical school professor who studies gun violence, has counted license plates in the parking lots outside Reno gun shows. Fully 30 percent of the cars had California plates, he said.

"Northern California had a direct personal interest in that debate in Nevada," Wintemute said. "It would have made it more difficult for prohibited persons to obtain firearms. It would have made it harder to get crime guns into California."

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued its latest annual report documenting the origins of guns used in crimes in all 50 states. The agency traced 31,244 guns used in crimes in California. The largest number – 13,106 – came from within California.

Arizona, another state with lax gun safety laws, supplied the second largest number of crime guns to California, 1,029 in 2012, and 5,949 since 2006.

Nevada came next, accounting for 550 guns used in California crimes last year, and 3,374 guns used in California crimes since 2006. Oregon, which has some gun controls and a million more residents than Nevada, accounted for 1,869 guns used in California crimes since 2006.

In many states, including Nevada, politicians fear they will feel the NRA's wrath if they stray from its vision of Second Amendment orthodoxy. That could change, thanks to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate who's No. 10 on Forbes' latest list of the richest Americans with a fortune of $27 billion.

Viewing background checks as the most important step to curb gun violence, Bloomberg hired lobbyists in Nevada and paid for ads urging support for SB 221. Not surprisingly, some of the ads connected the dots between Nevada's use of Greyhound Therapy to dump mentally ill residents onto other states and Nevada's exportation of guns used in crime.

"He is dumping his guns, and he is dumping his mentally ill patients," John Feinblatt, chairman of the Bloomberg-founded and financed Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told me by phone. "It is an interesting public policy position – good for Nevada, not so good for California."

Sandoval, a former federal judge and Nevada attorney general, remains popular in his state. Democrats assume he will win re-election in 2014. There is, however, the Bloomberg factor. The mayor could fund a serious challenger's campaign with the interest he earns in a day.

"Stay tuned," Feinblatt said.

Meanwhile, Reno will host a gun show next month, loophole wide open. It's a short drive up Interstate 80. Kids under 12 can get in free.

"You can buy, sell and trade with hundreds of tables to meet the needs of everyone who attends," the gun show promo says. There is a caveat: "No loaded firearms and no loaded magazines are permitted in any Crossroads Gun Show."

You have to wonder what they're afraid of.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/morain.

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