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Searching for Common Ground on Guns
It’s been more than six months since the tragedy of Oct. 1, when 58 people were killed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on the Las Vegas Strip. Following that, the worst mass shooting in United States history, 43 additional lives were lost in separate gun-related massacres at a Texas church and a Florida high school.
Together, these three violent events have reignited the often-contentious debate about America’s gun laws. In an effort to move the gun-reform conversation forward in a substantive manner, the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law has launched a series of discussions titled “Finding Common Ground on Gun Safety.” The goal is to bring together lawmakers, law enforcement officials, judges, academics, students, and community members to engage in a dialogue about legal and legislative solutions for reducing gun violence.
The series kicked off April 13 at the law school’s Thomas & Mack Moot Courtroom and featured a talk with former U.S. Rep. and current California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, followed by a discussion with a panel of local community leaders.
“Oct. 1 changed the state, and I think it’s important for the state’s law school to foster and be part of the conversation around gun safety that we need to have in the wake of that tragedy,” says UNLV Law Dean Daniel W. Hamilton. “That conversation should be balanced, it should be thoughtful, and it should be substantive. And the law school is ready to be a partner and leader as we have that conversation.”
The debut lecture attracted a diverse crowd of high school, college and law school students, as well as professors, parents, attorneys, and community leaders. They heard first from Becerra, who was asked to lead the conversation for two key reasons: He has been a longtime advocate of gun reform, and he represents a state that lost 33 citizens in the Oct. 1 shooting, resulting in a shared tragedy across neighboring states with differing gun laws.
Becerra spoke passionately about the need for strict, universal gun-control legislation similar to what was adopted years ago in his state. For instance, California has had a ban on assault rifles—such as the AR-15 that was used in the Las Vegas and Florida massacres—for nearly three decades. The state also requires thorough across-the-board background checks, including for those purchasing weapons at gun shows. Nevada law currently doesn’t require background checks at gun shows, despite a 2016 ballot initiative passed by voters that attempted to close this loophole but which is now mired in a legal battle.
Additionally, a unique California statute gives law enforcement officials the authority to track down and confiscate firearms from those who have been convicted of a felony, deemed mentally ill or are otherwise judged to be unfit to possess a gun. Thanks to that law, Becerra says that over the past dozen years state officials have recovered more than 30,000 weapons from California residents who have lost the privilege of owning a gun. “We have enacted some of the strongest, most innovative gun-control laws in the nation—and we’re not going to stop,” he says. “On gun safety, we are unbowed and unafraid.”
Nevada State Senator and UNLV Law student Yvanna Cancela followed Becerra and moderated a panel that featured two local members of law enforcement (Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Deputy Chief Andrew Walsh), an expert on constitutional law (Boyd Professor Ian Bartrum), and a high school principal (Sierra Vista’s John Anzalone, who recruited more than a dozen of his students to attend the lecture).
The five panelists spoke about gun reform as it relates to their areas of expertise, with points of emphasis including the need to increase funding to help those who are mentally ill (Wolfson and Walsh noted that the state’s largest mental health facility is actually the Clark County Detention Center); enacting legislation that bans bump stocks like the ones used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock; repealing the state’s pre-emption law, which prohibits local jurisdictions from enacting stricter gun laws; and improving security in public schools (Anzalone says Sierra Vista has more than 50 access points that are patrolled by just three hall monitors and a single school police officer).
Following the two-hour discussion, several panelists spoke about the importance of continuing the gun-reform dialogue, noting that while such conversations aren’t easy, they’re essential if society is to put a stop to the kind of senseless tragedies that occurred in Sutherland Springs, Texas; Parkland, Florida; and Las Vegas.
“These kinds of discussions are the only way to move the needle, to be honest,” Bartrum says. “It’s hard, because there are entrenched positions [on both sides]. Ideas that might seem like common sense in other contexts are viewed in these contexts as existential threats—as threats to identity—and it becomes very difficult to move the needle at all if we aren’t able to have a conversation that gets below the partisan part of the discussion.”
For his part, Wolfson says he’ll continue to make himself available for similar discussions on gun safety, because “they can only move the discussion forward to action. And doing nothing is not an option.”
That sentiment is shared by the Metro deputy. “This absolutely should be a priority,” Walsh says. “Because bullets don’t have a conscience. ZIP codes and the number of victims—that’s all that changes [in these shooting massacres]. And the only change that really comes about is when people finally get sick and tired of being sick and tired. That’s why these [types of programs] are great, and why we will continue to participate in them.”
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