Why was a Nevada Commission Too Afraid to Even Discuss Assault Weapons?

Posted on September 6, 2012

image from aroundcarson.com

A year ago today, four people were killed and seven more injured by a man with an assault weapon at an IHOP in Carson City, Nevada. Immediately, survivors and members of law enforcement issued calls for change. “I can’t imagine why we are even selling assault weapons to civilians,” said shooting survivor and National Guard Sergeant Caitlin Kelly. “There’s no reason for an AK-47 or an M-16 or an M-4 to be in a civilian’s home.” The sheriff of nearby Washoe County concurred, urging the public to “stand up and demand change.”

Heeding the call for action, an advisory commission tasked with reviewing the state’s criminal justice system scheduled a hearing to gather information about assault weapons. The commission invited one of our attorneys to participate, alongside representatives from the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association and the National Rifle Association. We accepted the invitation, pleased to have the opportunity to provide our expertise. That discussion was scheduled for last Tuesday. Unfortunately, it never happened.

In the weeks leading up to the scheduled hearing date, pro-gun supporters inundated the commission with e-mails, phone calls and letters. The NRA sent an alert to its members encouraging them to attend the hearing and voice their opposition to regulating assault weapons. The group, which didn’t want to talk about the devastation the Carson City victims and their families suffered in the aftermath of that tragedy, was now more than willing to talk about their real priority – keeping dangerous military-style firearms legal. After all, according to the Nevada State Rifle and Pistol Association, assault weapons are just plain “fun to shoot.”

At the hearing, with a crowd of pro-gun supporters watching, Judge David Barker, a commission member, questioned the authority of the commission to discuss assault weapons. Despite assurance from the commission’s legal counsel that the subject fit well within the body’s purview, the commission then voted, eight to five, to remove the issue from its agenda. It was a shocking, last-minute decision, and the commission’s counsel told us he had never seen anything like it.

Had we discussed the issue of assault weapons, the commission would have heard that there are an estimated two million assault weapons already in circulation in the United States. That they are the weapon of choice in many mass shootings of innocent civilians, not just in Carson City, but all over the country, including the July 20th shooting in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 people dead and 58 wounded. That assault weapon shootings are responsible for a significant percentage of the deaths of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty because military-style firearms are increasingly favored by drug dealers and gang members. And that, for these reasons, a consistent majority of Americans support not just regulating assault weapons but banning them altogether.

And, of course, the NRA would have had the chance to respond to these grim facts. But they obviously preferred not to have the discussion at all.

It takes real courage and leadership for policymakers to work on solutions to our nation’s epidemic of gun violence. Before change, though, we need an honest discussion of the problem. Sadly, the members of the Nevada advisory commission were too afraid to even discuss the facts about assault weapons, despite a tragedy that left four people dead only one mile away.

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