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Gun law ‘red flags’ enter GOP Senate primary between Laxalt, Brown

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Election 2022
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Various handguns as seen on display inside Discount Firearms & Ammo in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2018.

When it comes to gun issues, there isn’t much daylight between the top two candidates in Nevada’s 2022 Republican Senate primary. 

But there’s one topic that Sam Brown, a veteran and political newcomer to Nevada, is hoping to use as a wedge against frontrunner Adam Laxalt — so-called “red flag” laws, which allow police to temporarily confiscate a person’s guns if they pose a threat to themselves or others.

The pair have sparred on the issue almost entirely indirectly, as Laxalt has cast his run as exclusively against incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, rather than a primary against Brown. 

The degree to which the Republican primary could be competitive down the stretch remains to be seen six months out from the primary election. Brown raised more than $1 million in the third quarter of last year, a sum that put him within reach of the roughly-$1.4 million raised by Laxalt. But polling has so far focused on head-to-head matchups between Laxalt and Cortez Masto.

In the race for the chance to challenge Cortez Masto, the issue of guns — and how much say the government has over them — could help mobilize Republicans. 

A back-and-forth on red flag laws

As attorney general, Laxalt staked out a public position as a staunch defender of gun rights and opponent of firearm control measures. Laxalt has been endorsed twice before by the National Rifle Association, the last of which came in 2018 when the group gave him an “A+ grade.” 

Still, in 2018 a study committee — led by Laxalt’s office and commissioned amid the immense political pressure created by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — drafted a series of recommendations meant to decrease the likelihood of school shootings. 

Among those recommendations: that lawmakers should study other similar protective order laws across the country and consider enacting similar policies in Nevada. 

Laxalt’s opponents, including Brown, have pointed to the inclusion of those recommendations — interpreted at the time and since as support for the idea of red flag policies more generally — as something of a contradiction, especially after Laxalt sharply criticized red flag laws during a speech to the NRA in 2017. 

State lawmakers split along party lines in 2019 on AB291 — a law that includes red flag provisions allowing family, household members or police to petition for a court order to seize weapons for up to a year. 

As that bill was being debated, Laxalt and a political action committee affiliated with him, Morning in Nevada PAC, openly opposed the measure and ran online ads casting the measure as “reckless.” 

Laxalt’s name also emerged by proxy, as proponents of AB291 characterized the recommendations from his office as support, in essence, for the new red flag legislation. 

That characterization was challenged on the Senate floor, however, by Republican Sen. Ira Hansen, who said he reached out to Laxalt and was told “[Laxalt] made it clear he would be 100 percent against this law on the basis of the violation of an individual’s due process rights.”

In a statement, Laxalt campaign communications director John Burke said that "no one has fought harder to protect the Second Amendment rights of peaceful, law-abiding gun owners in Nevada than Adam Laxalt.”

Requests for red flag confiscations have been extremely rare in the time since the measure was passed. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who is running for governor as a Republican, said last year that Metro has seen only two applications for the extended protection orders since the law was passed in 2019, and that both of them were never processed by the state.

The messaging

Last month, Laxalt sought to tie Cortez Masto both to her own past votes and to the gun policies of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. 

In a fundraising email with the subject “2A alert,” his campaign treaded a familiar party line as it said Cortez Masto and Democratic leaders "want to take our 2nd Amendment rights.” 

The email also touted endorsements from the NRA and Gun Owners of America, as well as efforts to sue “liberals who tried to take our gun rights away.” Before a final fundraising pitch, the email ends in all-caps: “And when Democrats tried to pass red flag laws to limit our gun rights, I FOUGHT BACK.” 

The NRA’s political arm has not yet released new grades or endorsements for candidates outside of races in Virginia, Maine and South Carolina. When asked about the likely timing of such announcements, an NRA spokesperson said Friday that any endorsements would come “shortly before” Nevada’s June 14 primary election. 

And though the issue is seventh on a list of key issues on the Sam Brown website, the Second Amendment has emerged as a possible wedge issue in appearances by Brown campaign surrogates. 

In an interview late last month on Nevada Newsmakers, former Republican political operative and Brown supporter George Harris accused Laxalt of being a “Manchurian candidate” — a reference to a Cold War spy thriller in which the protagonist is an unwitting sleeper agent — in part because of his office’s recommendation for a red flag law study.

“I hope when you have [Laxalt] on your show, I hope you ask him … why did your report say that you thought the Legislature should enact red flag laws,” Harris said. “This kid is a Manchurian candidate.”

When asked for comment on the candidate’s positions, Brown’s campaign said Nevada’s own red flag provisions “are a direct result of Adam Laxalt’s recommendations as Attorney General.”

“That’s a major difference between myself and Adam Laxalt,” Brown's statement said. “I would never recommend giving a predominantly liberal judiciary nearly unfettered discretion to take away any citizens’ rights, including the Second Amendment." 

Cortez Masto and the federal push for gun control

Cortez Masto’s campaign has said comparatively little on the issue of guns, instead seizing on the fundraising potential of a handful of polls in late 2021 that showed the incumbent trailing Laxalt in a hypothetical head-to-head.

Still, Cortez Masto is a gun owner, and in her time on Capitol Hill has taken firm positions on a number of gun control issues. 

That includes sponsoring or co-sponsoring several pieces of legislation — though all have been caught in the limbo of a Congress long paralyzed over hot-button partisan issues, guns among them. 

That includes a measure she sponsored in 2019, alongside Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), that sought to ban high-capacity magazines. The Senate bill and an identical version in the House both died without receiving votes, though a similar bill was reintroduced in the House in April 2021. 

More recently, Cortez Masto sponsored the re-introduction of a bill last year that would seek to expand federal gun background checks to include all gun sales, essentially closing loopholes allowing private sales or transfers without such checks. 

Nevada nearly implemented similar measures after a ballot question, 2016’s Question 1, was approved by voters by a razor thin margin of 0.9 percent, but the process stalled amid lawsuits and the refusal of the FBI to conduct those additional background checks. 

Provisions within Question 1 were later resurrected in 2019 by SB143, a measure backed by Democrats that relied on state authorities to conduct background checks, rather than the FBI. 

She also co-sponsored a bill introduced last May, the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, that would award federal grants to state, local and tribal governments that established their own red flag legislation. The bill was last referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has not yet been heard.  

When asked if she backed policies laid out by the Biden administration last year, her campaign said the senator agreed with the administration’s goals of reducing gun violence, but also believed that legislation she has supported in the Senate — namely universal background checks, a high-capacity magazine ban and bump-stock ban — will achieve those goals.   

Cortez Masto received an “F” rating from the NRA ahead of the 2016 U.S. Senate election, and the group reported spending more than $2.5 million largely through television ads against her during the election cycle.

During her short stint with the Nevada System of Higher Education, Cortez Masto also led opposition to a proposed “campus carry” bill in the 2015 legislative session that would have allowed licensed concealed firearm permit holders to carry while on college or university campuses. She called it “a solution in search [of] a problem that doesn’t exist.”  

During her tenure as state attorney general, Cortez Masto at times staked out a more moderate position on firearm issues, including co-signing a 2009 letter to former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder that asked the Obama administration to not bring back an “assault weapons” ban that lapsed in 2004. 

However, her office said in 2018 that her “views have evolved” and that the senator now supports an assault weapon ban.

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