Joe Leal says he knows the good ones from the bad. He’s been doing this for decades. He trusts that his brown eyes — narrowed beneath a furrowed brow — won’t deceive him.
He looks down at the shiny silver handgun under a glass case. Next to it is an all-black one. Criminals don’t want guns like this, he explains. They’re expensive and only the serious enthusiast will lay down more than $2,000 for such a weapon. Even his lower-end guns fetch at least $600.
He’ll check their identification to make sure they’re a Nevada resident. If he gets a bad vibe, he’ll walk the customer over to a table where a federally licensed gun dealer can run a background check. That’s if he even decides to go that far. When he’s suspicious, the 82-year-old former U.S. Army lieutenant and long-time Nevada resident simply refuses to sell.
Leal is a private seller who might move 15 firearms a year. He calls it his “hobby jobby” and doesn’t believe he needs the government telling him when to run a background check — as is now being proposed on the November ballot. It’s not the Nevada way, he explains.
“Don’t tamper with our gun ownership,” he said. “It’s just a part of us.”
But that may be changing.
Demographic shifts already have transformed Nevada into a swing state in recent presidential elections and given Democrats an edge in voter registration. They have also made the Silver State the latest testing site for Michael R. Bloomberg’s attempt to pass a law requiring background checks for gun sales between private parties, including those conducted over the Internet.
Polling indicates Bloomberg may have bet correctly.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal released a poll earlier this month showing 58% of likely registered voters supported Question 1, which would require people like Leal to run background checks on buyers. Three other polls released since July have shown the measure steadily drawing more than 60% support.
If it passes, Nevada would join eight states that have a similar requirement. Washington passed a ballot measure in 2014. Colorado and Oregon’s legislatures passed private-party background checks recently as well.
Jennifer Crowe, spokeswoman for Nevadans for Background Checks, says the law won’t stop every crime committed with a firearm, but it will stop some criminals from buying guns. That, she said, is worth it.
At a recent debate on the issue held at the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas, she said the measure was designed to save people like Christina Franklin.
Franklin was killed May 5 by her ex-boyfriend in front of a Las Vegas day-care facility, where she was arriving with her two children. The high-profile investigation revealed that Travis Lee Spitler, 40, had lied to a private seller about his criminal history and used that gun to kill her. Both children, 3 and 4, were injured in the shooting, and he died when he turned the gun on himself.
“A background check would’ve shown he wasn’t allowed to have that gun and Christina could very well be alive today,” Crowe said. “That’s what gets lost and what is so important to remember in this conversation and debate. This is about saving lives.”
Stavros Anthony, a Las Vegas councilman who opposes the ballot measure, noted that the debate was being held in a place highlighting the infamous activities of gangsters like John Dillinger, Al Capone and Sam Giancana.
“I would like to ask all the gang criminals that are featured in this museum if they would go through a background check to get their guns to commit their violent crimes,” Anthony said. “They never would have.”
Nevada is getting a replay of the arguments heard when other states enacted similar measures, just as voters are in Maine, where a background check measure is on the November ballot and leading in the polls.
The National Rifle Assn. — essentially the lone funding source opposing the Nevada initiative — views the ballot measure as a slippery slope that will only embolden Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety nonprofit to march into other states. A Nevada win, it believes, would put the West on notice for copycat initiatives and legislation promoted by Bloomberg.
NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said Bloomberg’s group is trying to turn Nevada and other Western states into California or New York.
“There weren’t Nevadans clamoring for gun control,” Mortensen said. “This is Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to impose his nanny-state gun control laws on Nevada.”
On one hand, Nevada is gun country. It allows open carrying of firearms, recognizes concealed weapons permits from nearly 30 other states, and is more lenient with people drinking and carrying than drinking and driving — .10 blood alcohol content is the limit for carrying a gun versus .08 for driving.
Yet Nevada’s identity in recent years hasn’t been as easy to pin down, says Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
He said that as early as 1959, the state Legislature made it a felony to carry a concealed handgun — revealing “less of an absolutism” about firearms.
Still, he said, the gun proposal is likely viewed as “mission creep” by some Nevadans, as well as the NRA.
“Even if it doesn’t really mean much to the state’s image, some people will look at this … and say an Old West state in the Wild West has passed background checks and, well, that was the state of the Cartwrights and ‘Bonanza’ — which was a period 150 years ago,” Green said. “Nevada is now more of the state of big mega-resorts and attempting to attract businesses like Tesla and Faraday. But it’s all tied together, too.”
The NRA has been outspent by Nevadans for Background Checks by more than a 10-to-1 ratio — the bulk of it coming from Everytown for Gun Safety — and awareness of the measure hasn’t filtered down to all voters.
Kevin Tarkalson, an NRA member, stood outside a Donald Trump rally in Henderson earlier this month handing out fliers and bumper stickers opposing Question 1, worrying as people walked in seemingly unaware of the initiative.
“We need people to turn out,” said Tarkalson, who shortened his bright red goatee recently after it kept getting stuck in the rail while he pumped and fired his shotgun. “This won’t end here. They’ll just keep going state to state trying to take away our right to own guns.”
Not so, says Clark County Dist. Atty. Steve Wolfson.
He said it took him a while to get on board with the initiative; he talked with both sides and looked at what the point of the initiative was before endorsing it. He explained it at the Mob Museum debate.
“We don’t pass a law prohibiting jaywalking to punish jaywalkers. We passed a law to prevent jaywalking to prevent car accidents and pedestrian accidents,” he said. “We’re not trying to pass a law for background checks to prevent all gun violence. But it will prevent certain classes of people from obtaining weapons.”
Leal said he just didn’t see it.
After packing up his display at the Texas Station Casino, he said he’d sold three guns. He had no worries. Any concerns he had would be saved for what might happen after Nov. 8.
“The Californication of Nevada has certainly taken place and those influences have come here with a liberal view of many issues,” Leal said. “I have accepted that things change somewhat, but we still have to hang on to our core values.”