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With the issue heating up, small groups of gun-control advocates hope to have a big impact

Protestors at Battlefield Vegas. PHOTO: VIRGIL DIBIASE
Protestors at Battlefield Vegas. PHOTO: VIRGIL DIBIASE

Three dozen die-hard Democrats and community activists braved the cold, dry air to protest a National Rifle Association lobbying event Saturday morning at a local machine-gun range, representing what they hope is a gathering effort to usher in new gun-safety laws — although their opposition says it will not happen.

In the chilly morning shadow of Circus Circus’ kid-friendly Adventuredome, the Starbucks-fortified protestors had very little interaction with the local lawmakers who accepted the hospitality offered by the NRA and Battlefield Vegas, where, according to its website, visitors are “guaranteed the most realistic first-person shooting experience of your life.” Those elected officials mostly ducked while driving past the protestors into the Industrial Road compound, then took advantage of the cover provided by the large military vehicles strategically placed by Battlefield Vegas to conceal most of the fenced, guarded and gated parking lot.

Despite that, protestors said they were able to identify a handful of lawmakers: Assembly members Heidi Swank, Andy Eisen and Ellen Spiegel, state Sen. David Parks, Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross and Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, all Democrats, joined Republican Assemblywoman Michele Fiore at the event, according to Brian Fadie, director of ProgressNow Nevada, which organized the protest with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the Culinary Union.

Parks, reached after the event, said Democratic Assemblyman James Healy and Republican Assemblyman John Hambrick also attended. Parks said he grew up on a farm and owned and handled firearms, so the shooting experience wasn’t new to him. He said he didn’t change his policy perspectives based on the tutoring provided on various weapons — or the opportunity to fire weapons at the range.

Eisen did not grow up around firearms — the first time he fired a weapon was at Battlefield Vegas. He said the technical information he gathered at the NRA presentation would be helpful considering policy questions, but he hasn’t made up his mind on the issues.

“It’s about trying to see the interests on all sides,” he said. Both men said that of the gun proposals issued by the Obama administration last week, closing loopholes for background checks would be the one for which they would be most receptive.

Swank and Spiegel donated donuts to the protestors before going into the gun range, while Collins tipped his cowboy hat to them after driving into the gated compound. Collins is no stranger to firearms. He was charged last summer with shooting guns at an impromptu July 3 celebration at his North Las Vegas home.

Otherwise, the protestors were largely ignored by those going in and out of the compound, but they did pick up a few supportive honks from passing drivers. Metro touched base with the group, but largely left it alone. Circus Circus security, however, rousted the protestors out of the casino parking lot (with its huge “Free Parking” signs) at 7:50 a.m., just 20 minutes after the protest began.

It was, by the way, Gun Appreciation Day, as proclaimed by the NRA. It was also the day that President Obama asked Americans to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with a National Service Day.

(One lawmaker who wasn’t at Saturday’s NRA event was Assemblyman Steve Brooks, who marked the day by allegedly threatening Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick with a gun at her North Las Vegas home. It’s unclear if he was answering the call for service or gun appreciation.)

The protest was one of a number of local meetings and events at which gun-control activists plotted their next steps. Two days earlier, in a tony subdivision of Sun City Summerlin, a retired nurse gathered a dozen like-minded people determined to back the president’s efforts to ban new sales of military-style assault rifles, limit the high-capacity clips favored by the assailants in most recent mass shootings and require background checks for everyone buying firearms.

One woman said her late husband had a half-dozen firearms and was a member of the NRA, and that her son is a firearms dealer. Still, Linda Friedman said she realized after the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that gun violence has gone too far.

“We have to do something,” Friedman, a retired homemaker, said.

One woman helped guide the discussion toward a concrete goal: Working on Nevada’s senior senator, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, urging him to support legislation on the president’s agenda. Lila Asnani said she is a member of One Million Moms for Gun Control. The group, founded a day after the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, now has 30,000 members and 75 chapters, Asnani said.

Fred, a Summerlin resident who attended the meeting, said he likes the NRA’s idea to have armed guards at schools, and agrees that people should have the right to have guns in their home — but not military-style weapons.

He noted that gun enthusiasts use the Second Amendment to justify owning all kinds of weapons, “but what about the First Amendment that says we have the right to ‘life, liberty the pursuit of happiness?’” (In fact, the First Amendment guarantees the right to speech and worship free of government interference. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.)

Some of those attending the Summerlin meeting had larger agendas. Ken Bradley, a retired clinical psychologist, argued that the use of antidepressants is increasing the level of violence overall in the country. And Jim Haber of the peace group Nevada Desert Experience tied the issue of gun violence to the issue of militarism generally and the U.S.’s role in exporting arms to the rest of the world.

Such nascent efforts to promote gun-control or safety efforts face, at best, an uncertain future in Washington, D.C., and an even more dubious prospect in Carson City. Reid has said that Obama’s proposals will get a fair hearing, but analysts believe that getting the measures through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives may be impossible.

Nonetheless, new groups and even the president’s campaign organization, Organizing for America, are working on the ground in Nevada and nationwide for change.

Even while gun-safety advocates work for rules they believe will make mass shooting events less likely, the NRA and like-minded politicians are working to put more guns in the hands of teachers and administrators, or armed guards, on K-12 campuses nationwide. In Nevada, Assemblywoman Fiore plans to reintroduce legislation that would allow students and others to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.

Fadie, however, says he believes gun-safety measures will pass because the majority of Americans support them, but he acknowledges that gun-enthusiasts have a huge amount of passion to drive their efforts.

“They have a lot of strong emotion, but gun ownership is on the decline,” he said Saturday. “There is strong public support, particularly, for universal background checks.”

He needled the elected officials who attended the NRA event Saturday.

“The NRA says it did this to educate the politicians. Do they really need to shoot machine guns to understand the NRA’s position, that the answer to gun violence is more guns?”

Joan Magit, a retired nurse who hosted the Summerlin meeting, said the alternative to no action will be more bloodshed.

“As a nurse practitioner, I have seen the end result. I have personally seen the results of gun assaults,” she said. “I have seen kids with their heads blown off. … I just don’t see a place for guns.”