Gilroy suspect bought gun at 19 in Nevada. Will state lawmakers reconsider gun laws?


RENO, Nev. - The thought haunting Nevada gun control advocates surrounds action the state Legislature could have taken this year that may have prevented the three deaths at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday. At least 12 people were wounded.

California politicians and media outlets were quick to point out the 19-year-old suspected gunman couldn't have legally bought the assault weapon used in the shooting in his home state. Instead, Santino William Legan went next door to Nevada, one of three states bordering California where residents over the age of 18 can purchase a rifle.

If it were up to the Silver State's gun control activists, the suspected gunman would've been out of luck here, too.

Advocates said they've long had conversations about raising the minimum age to buy a gun, but found it wasn't among Democratic lawmakers' top priorities at the 2019 Legislature in Carson City.

Nor has it been a marquee issue in the past, thanks in part to lawmakers' concerns about the impact such a law might have on young military veterans.

Nevada gun control reformers are hopeful, but not necessarily confident, that the Gilroy shooting will shift that debate when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021.

"I think there could've been an appetite for raising the minimum age," said Christiane Brown, a Reno-based gun policy reformer with the nonprofit Brady United Against Gun Violence. "We have to feel good about what we passed, but we could've done more."

Clash of priorities

Gun control advocates have been pushing for Nevada to raise its minimum gun-buying age to 21 ever since a 19-year-old carried out a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students and staff were killed and 17 others injured on Feb. 14, 2018.

They haven't succeeded, perhaps not least because they weren't setting the agenda during the state's most recent biennial legislative session.

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Many said that task fell to Everytown for Gun Safety, the billionaire-backed national gun control advocacy group that recently helped push through a pair of major gun reforms in Nevada.

Armed with teams of lawyers and reams of data, the group funded by media mogul and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg successfully lobbied for new laws that will beef up background checks on gun purchases and make it easier for courts to seize weapons from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

But a change to the minimum gun-buying age was not among the New York-based organization's priorities, leaving the issue rudderless in a fast-moving flood of legislation signed during the session.

The Nevada chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an Everytown-affiliated gun control group, said there wasn't a lot of good research to show how effective raising the minimum age on gun purchases might be.

"That's what prompted us not to push for that," said Sarah Dahl, who helps lead the local chapter of Moms Demand Action. "In Nevada, there's some people that push back against every little gun initiative.

"We try to be very strategic about what we know is going to get passed. I'll be honest, we did not look very closely at raising the minimum age."

Local leaders not allowed to take up stricter gun reforms

California has some of the toughest gun laws in the country.

Nevada doesn't.

In fact, by some estimates, the Silver State has less than one-fifth of the total firearm laws enacted by its western neighbor.

Brown, the Reno-based gun control advocate, listed the two-year, momentum-killing gap between legislative sessions among the reasons gun control legislation has proved tough to pass in Nevada.

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If lawmakers met annually, Brown said, they might be willing to take another crack at one of the few recently proposed gun reforms that might have stopped the Gilroy shooter.

The controversial proposal, known as "pre-emption," was eventually stripped out of a much larger omnibus gun bill. It would've allowed cities and counties to enact tougher gun restrictions than those approved by the state. That means officials in Churchill County, where the suspect bought his assault rifle early last month, would've been empowered to ban sales to 19-year-olds, or to anyone else they thought shouldn't have a gun.

"If we had passed pre-emption, we could do something about (the Gilroy shooting) right now," Brown said. "That's the problem with (the Legislature) meeting every other year."

Chip Evans, a longtime Democratic activist and chair of the Nevada Gun Safety Coalition, pointed out lawmakers opened the loud, lengthy debate surrounding the state's new background check bill at the very start of the session.

He worries that may have diminished their appetite to tackle similarly divisive gun reforms later on.

Evans said Carson City's conversations on changes to the minimum gun-buying age frequently center around military veterans and active-duty service members - some of whom are under the age of 21.

Legislators have never been eager to tell a young, highly trained Nevada veteran they can carry a gun overseas, but can't buy one at home.

"That's always been a hill too big to climb in Nevada," Evans said. "I don't know if that's going to change. … I think the primary focus is going to be an assault weapons ban."

Nevada lawmakers keep quiet amid criticism from California leaders

Such a ban might help take the heat off of Nevada's top elected leaders, who have come in for alternating waves of scorn and praise in the days after the Gilroy shooting.

The revelation that the Gilroy shooter bought his gun in Nevada prompted a swift, sharp rebuke from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who pointed the finger at retailers in neighboring states that sell what he refers to as weapons of mass destruction.

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California Attorney General Javier Becerra also looked east in responding to the shooting, telling reporters the Golden State "cannot control what other states do, and that's what makes it so tough."

Democratic Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and Democratic legislative leaders did not return requests for comment on those remarks.

Other Democratic lawmakers admit they are thinking about how to stop the next mass shooting.

If red flag laws and beefed-up background checks don't work, they plan to keep on looking for something that will.

"Time will tell if the legislation put into effect would've made a difference," said Assembly Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, a Democrat from Reno. "Right now, we just don't know, but it's something we're all thinking about.

"We're really committed to finding a way to make sure these incidents don't happen."

Follow James DeHaven on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven

This article originally appeared on Reno Gazette Journal: Gilroy festival shooting: Shooter's age rekindles Nevada gun debate


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