He was just 20, not old enough to legally buy a drink at the bar inside the Las Vegas Club.
But his money was good there, and he used some change to pump nickels into the jukebox. It kept up a steady loop of “Crying in the Chapel,” the big hit of 1953.
His money had been good at the pawn shop down the street, too. That’s where he saw the pistol in the window.
Who knows what was going through his head that day? His previous address had been a Texas mental institution.
But whatever he was thinking, he perceived a slight from a pretty cocktail waitress and decided to get her attention by pulling out the pistol and firing two bullets into her. He shot a stranger at the bar, too.
The waitress was disabled, but survived. The fellow standing next to the kid who heard “Crying in the Chapel” in his head wasn’t so fortunate.
That was just one of several acts of gun violence that year that shocked the public, got Review-Journal Editor Al Cahlan agitated, and led the Las Vegas City Commission to enact stricter gun ordinances in the increasingly wild downtown corridor. Thanks to the late local historian Frank Wright, who recounted it in his popular radio series “Nevada Yesterdays,” I was recently reminded of the long-faded news event.
We take for granted that Nevada’s Wild West heritage and libertarian political underpinnings are so ingrained in our system that elected officials of the past were of a single mind about things like gun laws and safety. But that 1953 incident is a reminder that our community’s elders also saw the potential for trouble when you mix a 24-hour atmosphere with easily obtained firearms.
More than six decades ago, the city commission passed an ordinance forbidding the display of guns in shop windows and set the minimum age of 21 for purchases. Although it wasn’t included in the ordinance, there was also talk of requiring a waiting period.
Many years later, officials and citizens continue to debate gun safety in an age of unprecedented firearm proliferation and marketing, and the undeniable political power of the country’s gun lobby.
Late last year, an initiative petition calling for mandatory background checks on nearly all gun purchases in the state was filed by Nevadans for Background Checks, an eclectic group that includes victims of gun violence and some members of law enforcement. In a matter of a few weeks, the group managed to collect a nearly 250,000 signatures — more than twice the 101,667 required to qualify the initiative for the 2016 ballot.
Although the petition process was challenged in December by a group called Nevadans for State Gun Rights, then-Secretary of State Ross Miller made it clear the legal process had been followed. It will be intriguing to see what the state’s new crop of Republican constitutional office holders do.
The Legislature can accept the will of more than 200,000 Nevada voters and approve the petition. If it decides to reject it, the measure would appear as a ballot question in 2016.
Either way, it appears Nevadans are once again attempting to do something to combat gun violence. The background check law’s critics range from those who believe it will be unsuccessful because criminals don’t follow the rules to those who suspect all those gun registrations will one day be used to confiscate Americans’ weapons.
Advocates point to lower incidents of gun-related domestic violence. Domestic abusers will find it more difficult to purchase handguns if the effort becomes law.
Currently in Nevada, weapons sold at gun shows don’t require background checks. Nor do weapons sold between private parties. That would change if the background check measure becomes law.
The background check initiative wouldn’t have been needed if Gov. Brian Sandoval had signed the bill that passed the Legislature in 2013. But Sandoval vetoed it, a decision which no doubt pleased gun lobbyists who were actively working to undercut it.
Nevadans will know in a few months whether we write a new chapter in the struggle for gun safety, or simply continue to allow history to repeat itself.
Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.