Firearm background checks in Nevada

They’re not about public safety, they’re about money

By Ben Robison
  • Tuesday, January 5, 2010

For almost 10 years, the state has been charging Nevadans for a mandatory service that our federal taxes already fund.

In 1993, the federal government passed firearms legislation requiring all gun stores to run criminal background checks on prospective gun buyers. Known as the Brady Bill, this legislation directed the U.S. Attorney General to use federal tax dollars to create and maintain an FBI-run background check system.

Background checks violate the Second Amendment, given its purpose of assuring that Americans have the fire-power to resist despotic rule. Any government attempt to deny that right is an infringement.

Yet Nevada took this unconstitutional law and made it worse: the state charges Nevadans to restrict their rights.

The problem with Nevada's background check

The Brady Bill does allow states to administer the background check process, provided they run checks through the FBI system. States can charge a fee for the administration of the state system.

Seeing an opportunity to increase government's revenue stream, Nevada politicians jumped at the opportunity to operate this system. Although the state gave many justifications, its true motive became obvious in meetings preparing for the change.

"It was all about money. The state wanted to generate more revenue," says one gun store manager.

And generate revenue it has. According to U.S. Justice Department figures, Nevada performed 84,458 checks in 2008. At $25 per check, that meant over $2.1 million. From 2006 through 2008, the checks — charging Nevadans again for the "service" they're already paying the Feds for — added over $5 million to state coffers.

According to the state Department of Public Safety's records bureau, the background-check program is one of its top revenue generators — subsidizing many of its other activities.

Indeed, in 2004 the bureau was nearly out of money. To avoid closing it altogether, its bureaucrats — with the blessing of then-governor Kenny Guinn — increased background fees nearly 67 percent. Largely because of that increase, the bureau was able to pay off debt it had incurred, and after only two years projected a $7.4 million reserve balance.

It is unacceptable that the state charges for something that is already funded by our federal taxes.

The Feds check to ensure certain types of people — say, convicted felons and illegal aliens — can't legally purchase guns. Nevada, however, also regularly denies people who have unpaid parking tickets.

Is non-payment of parking tickets as egregious as murder or rape? Is it reason to disallow the right of self-defense? Nevada officials seem to think so. In the Silver State, the individual right to keep and bear arms is contingent upon generating revenue for the state.

Background checks do not work

While it is in everyone's interest to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals, background checks do not advance this cause. The reason is simple: criminals, by definition, do not obey laws.

The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics says about 80 percent of guns used in crimes come via friends, family or illegal sources. In short: Violent criminals usually bypass background checks.

This statistic also explains why denial rates are so low. In 2008, both state and national denial rates were under 2 percent. Clearly, only law-abiding citizens are affected by background checks. As is the case with other gun laws, the checks provide only a false sense of security to an uninformed public.

Robert Johnson, president of Gun Owners of Nevada, says, "Until we live in a utopian society, free of all criminal elements, criminals will use guns in their endeavors. So, law-abiding citizens require an equalizing means of defense."

A Justice Department survey of convicted felons supports Johnson's statement. When asked, 60 percent of inmates said they would not attempt a crime against an armed citizen. From that Justice Department study, economist John Lott concluded that the mere possibility that a person might be armed was a sufficient deterrent. When law-abiding people have access to guns, all forms of tyranny — from street thugs to would-be despots — are reduced.

An imperfect solution

Nevada needs to return background checks to the FBI. Since no state laws actually require background checks, switching back to the federal system should be fairly easy. The state would need to inform the FBI as well as Nevada gun stores of the switch, and establish a cutover date. This is a simple, clean and fiscally responsible solution that favors the taxpayer over the bureaucrat.

While the federal law is still unconstitutional, eliminating the state's duplicative system would be a move in the right direction.

Ben Robison is a contributing writer to the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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