Sun editorial:

Rural sheriffs side with criminals in defiance of background check law


Chris Carlson / AP

In this Oct. 14, 2015, file photo, Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly talks to the media during a new conference in Pahrump.

The Nevada sheriffs who are vowing not to enforce the state’s new law requiring background checks on all weapons claim they’re acting in the name of protecting Second Amendment rights.

That’s open to interpretation, as it doesn’t take a particularly strong streak of skepticism to think they may actually just be posturing for political reasons.

But here’s what isn’t up for debate: If these sheriffs don’t enforce the law, they’ll undeniably be benefiting a large group of people who are legally prohibited from purchasing and possessing guns, including convicted felons, domestic abusers and the severely mentally ill.

A loophole that allows gun purchases by those individuals was the target of the common-sense background check law that Nevada lawmakers passed in January. The loophole applies to sales that don’t involve licensed firearms dealers; it allows prohibited individuals to buy weapons from nonlicensed sellers at gun shows, through connections made on the internet and through other informal means.

Nevada’s law simply extended an existing requirement for background checks on purchases involving licensed dealers, making it apply to all transactions. Under the structure, buyers and sellers would take their weapons to a licensed dealer, who would request the background check. Then, assuming the buyer came up clean, the transfer would legally occur.

Perfectly reasonable. Perfectly prudent.

But to hear the sheriffs in several rural counties describe it, you’d think the law will immediately transform Nevada into Nazi Germany. In fact, that’s exactly the parallel that Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly drew in complaining about the law.

“In Germany prior to WWII, we saw Hitler place restrictions on the public’s right to bear arms,” Wehrly said.

Meanwhile, in Elko County, Sheriff Aitor Narvaiza and the county commission have gone so far as to discuss becoming a “Second Amendment sanctuary county.”

Good grief, let’s take a deep breath. This isn’t the end of America as we know it, or even the rights of law-abiding gun owners to purchase weapons.

It’s a new process and a $25 fee. Granted, for buyers and sellers in remote areas, it can be inconvenient to drive to a licensed seller, but those rural residents also face long drives for groceries and other needs.

Of course, gun-rights extremists see things completely differently. They’re howling that the law will prevent some types of firearms transfers that are now legal, and they’ve presented a litany of scenarios that they claim would now be unlawful.

But the law is written so that some temporary transfers are allowed without checks, including giving a gun to someone who’s in imminent danger or allowing someone to borrow one at an authorized gun range.

Is it perfect? Heck, is any law perfect? Nope. Plus, there is simply no law that could address every possible consequence of it. Unintended consequences are always a possibility.

But that doesn’t mean the sheriffs are right in rejecting it.

In fact, that’s exactly the opposite of protecting and serving.

The law’s intent is to help improve public safety by keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. Considering that the requirement for checks involving licensed dealers led to nearly 14,000 gun purchases being blocked over the past seven years, there’s no question that extending it to nonlicensed dealers would produce results.

Does it mean prohibited individuals won’t find another way? No. Will it alone curb the epidemic of gun violence in our state? No.

But it throws up a much-needed roadblock. The sheriffs should be working constructively to make it effective, not stiff-arming it.

Not only does their resistance threaten the safety of their constituents, it sets a dangerous precedent for our democracy.

The sheriffs may claim that they’re representing the will of the voters in their counties, given that the 2016 ballot measure carried even though it was rejected in every county except Clark.

Another element of the narrative coming from opponents of the law is that Nevada elected leaders take an oath to defend the constitutions of the state and the United States, and that the statute is an infringement of constitutional rights.

But they’re conveniently ignoring that in 2015, lawmakers passed a law requiring counties to uphold state gun laws and prohibiting local governments from passing any gun regulations more stringent than those in state law. Ironically, Republicans — many of whom identified as having the same pro-gun values as these sheriffs — were in control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature the year that law was passed.

The bottom line is that enforcing the will of voters on a county-by-county basis flies in the face of the principle of majority rule.

Given the likelihood of a legal challenge against the law, it’s anybody’s guess how this all will play out.

But these sheriffs should think about the fact that felons, domestic abusers, unscrupulous gun dealers and others like them are among those who would back their stance on the issue.