Nevada Has Potential to Shift Attitude on Gun Control

“We may have turned the corner on the debate over guns in America.”

Adam Winkler is a professor of law at UCLA and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. His book traces and analyzes not just a recent Supreme Court decision that strengthened the hands of gun rights advocates, but the history of American gun control laws and the culture surrounding them.

Getting the chance to spend a few minutes talking with Winkler wasn’t easy. He has been receiving a great deal of attention lately. Unfortunately, the media don’t pay much attention to the issue that was the subject of his book until some horror like the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn. Here are some of his comments and perspective about recent developments in italics, followed by where Nevada fits into the picture:

“There’s still plenty of room for state and local governments to regulate guns. There’s nothing to stop them as long as those restrictions do not violate the Second Amendment.” Newly elected Democratic state senator Richard Segerblom, who will chair that body’s judiciary committee, told the Las Vegas Sun that he “supports reasonable restrictions on handguns and assault weapons and concealed weapons.” The idea that a Nevada legislator would even make such a statement—even one from a safely Democratic and moderately liberal district—is almost revolutionary.

“Swing state voters love their guns …. One of the difficulties with local regulation of guns is that most blue cities are in red states, and when a blue city adopts a restrictive gun law, gun rights proponents are often successful in getting that law overturned at the state level.” Indeed, Clark County has more restrictive gun laws than the rest of Nevada, including a cooling-off period and more reporting requirements for gun sales. It also has a veto-proof majority in the legislature, but because that majority votes by party rather than by county, it cannot necessarily spread such laws statewide.

Segerblom still faces an uphill fight. Newly elected GOP Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore, who even welcomes being photographed wearing her shooting iron, wants to allow guns on higher education campuses—an idiotic bill that 15 state senators disgraced themselves by supporting in the last session before William Horne, then the Assembly judiciary chair and now the incoming majority leader, buried the matter in committee.

Segerblom may even have trouble among Democrats. One of them, John Cahill, the county public administrator and president of the Nevada Outdoor Democratic Caucus, said that “gun control doesn’t offer a solution to the problem,” which demonstrates an unfortunate mentality: Correctly stated, gun control doesn’t offer the solution, because the problem goes beyond gun control. It is or could be one solution, but many Nevadans on both sides of the aisle have trouble entertaining the idea. They need to start.

“It seems that we may have turned the corner on the debate on guns in America. The initial signs are promising for gun control proponents. When pro-gun senators like Virginia’s Mark Warner, who has an A rating from the NRA, says that Newtown was a game-changer, it’s a sign that times are changing. I think Obama definitely faces a new political calculus. He avoided talking about gun control for four years for fear of it affect his chances of re-election. But he no longer has to worry about re-election.”

While Warner was an A, the NRA awarded Harry Reid a B. Reid says, “Every idea must be on the table,” which says both very little and a great deal, since it suggests openness. His Senate colleague, Bipartisan Dean Heller, released the following pabulum: “We should look to our Constitution for the principles that will help guide us as we search for answers in these increasingly difficult and complicated times.” Rep. Joe Heck answered a constituent with a letter that was an advertisement for waffles (“Our country has important laws and systems in place to protect the public, and despite this tragedy, they have been largely effective. Millions of law-abiding gun owners should not be punished as a result of the actions of one disturbed individual, but we must make serious efforts to stop these horrible acts.”).

“I think a lot of people in Washington are taking a second look at whether the NRA is still the political powerhouse they though it to be. The NRA had a tough November, marked by the defeat of not only Mitt Romney, but also many down-ballot candidates endorsed by the NRA. We may even see shifts from several Republicans. After the election there was a lot of hand-wringing from Republicans who said they need to keep up with demographic shifts. Latinos are the strongest supporters of gun control in the nation. Polls show that Latinos favor gun control more than any other major ethnic group. So maybe Republicans need to think about appealing to these new constituencies.”

Could it be that Nevadans from Reid and Bipartisan Heller to Heck and state legislators realize that? In Reid’s case, it would be no surprise: he knows how important Latinos were to Democratic success in Nevada this time and in 2010, when he won a re-election that most experts thought him incapable of pulling off. But as the Latino population grows, and grows more important, it may be that voters from that group may outweigh the votes of those who think the right to own a gun matters more than anything else.

The question is whether the public will sustain its interest in changing the gun laws and whether politicians will listen.  If the first happens, the second is likely to follow.