It’s no surprise that emotions ran hot this autumn as voters decided the fate of the Nevada Background Checks for Gun Purchases Initiative.
But now that the measure has been approved, even if the approval was only by a 10,000-vote margin, gun owners in Nevada need to make sure that they comply with the law whenever they transfer ownership of a firearm.
And, frankly, it’s a little complex.
Here is how the new state law will work when it takes effect Jan. 1:
Anyone who isn’t a licensed firearms dealer is required to conduct a background check on the buyer whenever they sell a gun. To conduct a background check, both the seller and the buyer (or the donor and the recipient, if the transfer doesn’t involve a sale), need to take the firearm and appear before a federally licensed dealer.
Currently, for retail gun sales in Nevada, dealers conduct background checks through the Criminal History Repository run by the Department of Public Safety. The state charges dealers a $25 fee to run a background check.
But the new system requires instead that the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System handle the private-party background check system in Nevada. The national system involves filling out some paperwork from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF Form 4473, if you want to be precise). The dealer calls in the information or inputs it on a Web site, and generally gets a fairly quick response.
But not all responses are fast. Sometimes — like Black Friday, which saw more than 185,000 requests for background checks in 2015 — the federal background check system bogs down.
Licensed gun dealers in the state say they’re confused by the conflict between the state background check for retail sales versus the FBI system for private-party sales. State officials are studying the question and promise an answer before the law takes effect.
Federal law says that firearm dealers can proceed with a sale if they haven’t heard back from the FBI within three days, but many firearms dealers aren’t willing to go out on this limb. And it’s not entirely certain what happens if a background check requested by an unlicensed seller gets hung up in the federal system.
Licensed dealers also are uncertain how much they’ll charge for background checks on private sales. The new law allows a reasonable fee, and some dealers have kicked around the possibility of charging $100 or so.
Not every private sale is covered by the new state law. Law-enforcement agencies can buy and sell without background checks. Antique firearms aren’t covered. Transfers between immediate family members don’t require a background check.
If two buddies swap guns while they’re at a shooting range, the law specifically says that they do not need to conduct background checks on each other. Ditto for hunting parties. Or, if someone is in great bodily danger, they don’t need to fill out paperwork before grabbing a gun to defend themselves.
Even with those exceptions, and even with the confusion that faces the licensed firearms dealers who will run background checks, we think it’s a good idea for gun owners to err on the side of caution.
As a practical matter, it seems highly improbable that the state would be able to detect most of the sales that evade the requirement for a background check. But if a firearm somehow ends up as evidence in a criminal case, it’s almost certain that police and prosecutors will track its history, and they’re likely to discover the point when a sale was conducted outside the background-check system.
And the results of that discovery are going to be uncomfortable for otherwise law-abiding gun owners.
Sellers who fail to request a background check can be charged with a gross misdemeanor, which could result in a $2,000 fine or as much as a one-year jail term.
That seems like a tough price to pay just to avoid some paperwork and the expense of a background check.
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