Indy Fact Check: Sisolak was silent on gun background check ballot question, but supported concept in 2013
The recent mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, FL, has again thrust the issue of gun control into the political sphere — and become a campaign issue in Nevada’s gubernatorial race.
Though tensions in the Democratic gubernatorial primary race between Clark County Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Steve Sisolak have largely stayed out of the spotlight since both candidates announced their bids in 2017, hints of a potentially nasty primary battle have begun to emerge, specifically over the issue of support for expanded gun control measures.
In a recent Twitter back-and-forth with his counterpart on the Sisolak campaign, Giunchigliani’s campaign manager, Eric Hyers, took aim at Sisolak’s record on firearms, accusing him of “not publicly supporting” a ballot initiative expanding background checks on private party firearm sales “until he found himself in a Democratic primary.”
“The facts are clear: 1) He did nothing to support Q1 until after he was in a Democratic primary,” Hyers tweeted last month.
Although online spats between campaign managers are typical in any campaign, we thought this particular claim warranted fact-checking, given that it will likely come up again in ads or other campaign material before the June 12 primary.
Question 1 basics
Nevada voters narrowly approved Question 1 — The Background Checks Initiative — by a little more than 10,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast in the 2016 election. The initiative amends state law to require any person who sells or transfers a firearm (with some limited exemptions) to first undergo a federal background check on the recipient of the sale or transfer.
Two well-funded national organizations — the National Rifle Association and Everytown for Gun Safety — largely funded the two sides of the ballot measure, pouring millions of dollars into the campaign.
But implementation of the initiative has been stalled since 2016, after Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s office issued an advisory calling the initiative “unenforceable,” given that the ballot directed the FBI to perform the checks, and communications with the federal agency revealed it wouldn’t be compelled by the state to begin doing the checks. Retail gun sellers in Nevada use a state-run database (referred to as a “point-of-contact” system) to complete the background check, which state officials say is preferable to the FBI’s system as it captures a broader scope of records.
Attorneys for the ballot initiative filed a lawsuit against Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval late last year, seeking to compel him to change Nevada from a full to partial “point of contact” state as a way to force implementation of the ballot question. Both sides argued their case in District Court last week.
Who, what and when
It’s hard to find any record of Sisolak commenting one way or another about the ballot question prior to late 2017 — though he expressed support for the general concept of gun background checks in a 2013 interview.
Hyers said in an email that the Guinchigliani campaign had done an exhaustive online search of “Google, Pro Quest, NewsBank, LexusNexus, IQ Media, TV Eyes, and Steve Sisolak's Facebook and Twitter” and hadn’t found any other reference made by Sisolak regarding the ballot initiative until November 2017, in a Nevada Independent story detailing his positions on issues.
The only prior on-the-record comments Sisolak made about background checks came in a 2013 interview with the Las Vegas Sun, expressing support for a concept similar to what would later become Question 1.
“Something needs to be done in terms of some type of a background check,” he said at the time. “We’ve got people who are convicted felons or have mental health issues who are capable of buying firearms at a gun show or in a private sale, and that’s a problem. I think that a reasonable person would believe that some sort of background check that is not too invasive or not too onerous is, in my opinion, reasonable.”
Still, it’s hard to find any public support Sisolak specifically gave the recent ballot question in the period of time leading up to the 2016 election, though his campaign said he voted for the initiative and would work to implement it and other gun control measures as governor.
“Las Vegas knows all too well the damage that bump stocks can do,” he said in a Feb. 20 statement. “There is much more to do to prevent gun violence, including implementing background checks - which Adam Laxalt has refused to do - as well as banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”
Giunchigliani’s campaign also said she voted for the initiative, and the Democrat donated $2,000 to the primary group supporting the ballot question in 2015 (the group received no donations from Sisolak or his campaign account). She told The Nevada Independent last month that if elected, she would sign a bill mandating background checks for private party sales, adjusting the state’s “point of contact” status and support bans on “assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks.”
But like Sisolak, it’s hard to find a record of Giunchigliani publicly supporting the initiative outside of her financial contribution. In fact, the only elected office-holders who publicly endorsed the initiative were Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen and Rep. Dina Titus, who told KNPR prior to the election that she supported the measure.
It’s not that surprising to see a scant record for both candidates on gun issues, given the little interaction that county commissions have with firearms policy in Nevada. State lawmakers approved a bill in 2015 that put control of rules on firearms, accessories and ammunition in “exclusive domain of the Legislature,” preventing local governments from passing their own rules or ordinances on firearm policy.
Chris Giunchigliani’s campaign manager accused gubernatorial rival Steve Sisolak of doing nothing to support Question 1 “until after he was in a Democratic primary.”
All of Hyers’ tweets are careful to include a caveat about Sisolak “publicly” supporting the ballot measure, which is an important distinction to make. There’s no evidence that Sisolak opposed the ballot measure, and has never said anything that disputes his 2013 interview supporting a similar concept for expanded background checks. But like most state Democrats, he did not officially endorse or publicly show support for the ballot question prior to its passage.
It would be inaccurate to say that Sisolak opposed background checks, or switched his position on the ballot question. Even though the campaign uses careful caveats in how it describes Sisolak, ignoring his 2013 statement on background checks leaves out an important part of the story. We rate this claim Almost Abe.
Disclosure: Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.
Updated at 2:25 p.m. to include Rep. Dina Titus as one of the backers of Question 1 prior to the 2016 election. Titus was not listed on the Nevadans For Background Checks website as endorsing the measure, but she told KNPR that she supported it.