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Hugh Jackson: Senator rides small in the saddle

<p>Hugh Jackson</p>

Hugh Jackson

The traditional mystique of the man’s man of the rural Western United States conjures the stolid individualist, a rugged, independent-minded, no-nonsense sort who is tough yet judicious, a man of few words but an enviable supply of character and integrity.

Nevada loves this shit. The TV ad accompanying the state’s latest PR campaign ends with a cowboy galloping into the sunset, Stetson aloft. The campaign “captures Nevada’s DNA,” gushes Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Last year, a more consequential and less innocuous campaign also drew on imagery designed to evoke the mythical West. When not lobbing over-the-top distortions at Shelley Berkley, Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s 2012 ads featured Heller leaning on the corral fence, strolling through pastures and otherwise going full Hee-Haw. Heller’s victory depended in large part on crushing Berkley in rural counties, where Heller paraded on horseback. See, Dean Heller understands and cherishes the values of the West. He’s a rugged individualist, youbetcha.

In the weeks leading up to the Senate’s consideration of gun violence legislation, he indicated on several occasions that he supported expanding background checks to include private gun sales and effectively close the gun-show loophole. That modest reform, offered as a key amendment to an overall package of much smaller measures, is supported by 90 percent of Americans and, in one recent poll, about 80 percent of Nevadans.

And given the chance to enact something that he said he, too, supported, Heller instead voted against it.

“I cannot support legislation that infringes upon the constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” Heller said.

Um … OK … what exactly is it about expanding background checks that infringes on the Second Amendment? Or, more to the point, how does Heller think the measure infringes on the right to bear arms?

After all, as the right’s Supreme Court sweetheart Antonin Scalia wrote in the landmark 2007 case overturning D.C.’s handgun ban, “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.” For instance, Scalia wrote, the court’s ruling “should not be taken to cast doubt on … laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” What is expanding an already existing background-check program if not “imposing conditions and qualifications” on gun sales?

If Heller has an answer to that question, he has yet to share it with Nevada. In his statement, Heller failed to address the merit — let alone the constitutionality — of a single provision of the measure.

The closest thing to an argument Heller offered to justify his vote was a provision that specifically was not in the bill — a claim that the legislation would create “a national gun registry.” Oops, did I suggest nothing in the legislation would create a national gun registry? Allow me to be more precise. The legislation specifically prohibited the creation of a national gun registry.

“The enormity of this issue has weighed heavily on me,” Heller said in his statement.

No kidding. It weighed so heavily on him that he apparently lied about what was in the bill to justify his vote.

A couple weeks before the vote, when Heller appeared to be one of a handful of GOP senators who would vote for expanding background checks, Senate aides worried to the New York Times that Heller was getting pressured hard by the gun lobby. The assertion was confirmed by Larry Pratt, the lobbyist for the Gun Owners of America, who told the Times that his group was concerned about Heller because “he’s been kind of wandering around.” The story was little noted here in Nevada. But rest assured Platt’s blatant public warning did not go unnoticed by Heller and his handlers.

Heller time and again said Congress should expand background checks. Then he voted not to, even though he could offer no rational or even coherent explanation for his vote, relying instead on an intellectually bankrupt assertion that existed only in the imagination of gun lobbyists who, lacking any credible justification for their position, just made something up.

Heller was afraid of the gun lobby, plain and simple, so he put what he thought was in his best political interest ahead of what he himself said was in the country’s best interest.

The man of independence and character, the man who is dedicated to doing what is right and who truly possesses those qualities that Heller thinks he’s evoking when hops on his horse and plays the Western values card, would have been disgusted by the gun lobby’s strong-arm tactics, as well as its eagerness to manufacture falsehoods in the course of deliberately harming the greater public good.

Instead of caving to lobbyists, Heller should have told them to go fuck themselves. Then he could have proudly assured Nevadans that he would not be intimidated by a powerful lobby because he was elected to put Nevada’s interest first. That would have been the act of a tough but judicious and principled man, the honest, independent-spirited Westerner who says what he means and means what he says.

What Heller did, by contrast, was the act of a liar and a coward.

HUGH JACKSON co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3 and blogs at The Las Vegas Gleaner.