Nevada's $20M background check law frozen by attorney general

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt last week found Question 1, the voter-approved background check expansion measure, to be unenforceable as written (Photo: Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt last week found Question 1, the voter-approved background check expansion measure, to be unenforceable as written (Photo: Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Nevada Attorney General and Republican  Adam Laxalt last week issued an opinion that the new expanded background check law narrowly approved by voters does not meet legal muster and can’t take effect.

Laxalt, who opposed Question 1, the measure backed by gun control groups, stated that neither the Nevada Department of Public Safety nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation will perform the checks outlined by the referendum in an opinion issued Dec. 28.

The attorney general said a Dec. 14 letter from the FBI states private party background checks are in the purview of Nevada’s own resources as one of the 12 “point of contact” states that conduct their own checks through a central repository. With the federal government declining to process the expanded checks directly, and the Nevada DPS not authorized by the ballot measure’s language to run the checks, Laxalt says the law is unenforceable.

“The FBI’s refusal to carry out the central function required by the Act effectuates an unconstitutional ban, at present, on all private firearm sales or transfers in Nevada,” said Laxalt, going on to point out the ballot measure’s wording specifies the federal government would process the checks, saying, “Because the Act expressly and centrally relies on this error and forbids the Department from being contacted to run background checks, it requires and criminalizes the impossible.”

Question 1 was funded by a $19.7 million campaign fueled in large part by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Jennifer Crowe with Nevadans for Background Checks, the group who managed the campaign, told The Reno Gazette-Journal that other states have hybrid systems.

“The bottom line is that Nevada officials have a responsibility to work with the FBI to implement the system approved by a majority of voters,” said Crowe.

Sixteen out of 17 Nevada sheriffs came out against Question 1 before election day and Nevadan voters polled the same way, with the measure only winning in urban Clark County, failing to reach a majority in the rest of the Silver State’s counties. Still, it was enough to pull out a narrow victory with the ballot referendum winning by just over 9,000 votes.

As news of Laxalt’s opinion circulated, sheriffs across the state announced over the weekend they would not enforce the measure.

While lawmakers may have to cobble together a solution to meet Question 1’s intent, ballot initiatives, under Nevada law, cannot be modified by the state legislature for three years after their adoption.

State Sen. Michael Roberson, Republican minority leader in the Nevada Senate, and former Republican Attorney General and Gov. Bob List, penned an editorial published Monday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal contending the FBI and Laxalt made the right decision.

“Question 1’s opponents warned during the election that it was a deeply flawed law,” they wrote. “But now, with the FBI saying it will not do the checks required by the initiative, it is hard to see how anyone would want a law enforced that is so poorly written that it would make criminals of private citizens who fail to do the impossible when they sell or transfer a gun.”

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