The story of SB452: How an unlikely alliance helped block a plan to allow casinos to become gun-free zones

Gun Rights

David Calvert/ The Nevada Independent via AP, Pool (2020)

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, shown in 2020, shepherded Senate Bill 452 through the the chamber earlier this year. The measure would have allowed casinos to become gun-free zones.

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In recent sessions of the Nevada Legislature, lawmakers have taken several steps forward on gun safety.

Bump stock ban — passed. Universal background checks — passed. Red flag law — passed. Ban on ghost guns — passed. And so on.

So when lawmakers introduced a bill this year to allow casinos to become gun-free zones in a similar manner to schools, government buildings and even the Nevada Legislative Building, the legislation might have appeared likely to sail through the process to become law.

Wrong. The measure, Senate Bill 452, would run into opposition from an unlikely alliance of groups and would be blocked in the Assembly after passing narrowly in the Senate.

It was a stunning and frustrating setback for gun-safety advocates, who had argued that the bill was an appropriate reaction to a recent rise of gun violence on the Las Vegas Strip and would provide casino operators with an important tool to protect visitors and staff from harm.

The defeat of SB452 would also raise thorny questions about the balance between protecting public safety versus reducing the disparate impact of the justice system on communities of color.

In the end, it left the state’s casinos in a status quo that allows them to ban guns on their properties but, according to the bill’s proponents, places security staff and patrons at risk of violence in doing so. The situation has prompted worries of more gun violence that could dampen the tourism industry and thus the entire state economy if visitors feel they won’t be safe while in Las Vegas.

Here’s the story of SB452.

Guns and casino, a primer

Under state law, open carry of weapons is allowed on the Strip, as is concealed carry with a state-issued permit.

Casinos aren’t required to ban guns, but, as private property owners, they are legally allowed to do so. Some Las Vegas resorts prohibit firearms on casino floors, and some don’t.

Those with no-weapons policies can remove violators despite the failure of S.B. 452, through a process that was in place before the legislative session.

That process: Staff must confront suspected violators, ask them to comply with the ban and, if the individuals refuse, remove them from the property for trespassing.

But leading proponents of SB452, which was spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, say the trespassing enforcement method is problematic. A main reason is that casino security staff, most of whom are unarmed, must approach and interact with the armed violators, which creates a potentially volatile situation and puts staff members directly at risk. It also raises the possibility of confrontations that jeopardize the safety of guests as well.

SB452 would have allowed casino staff to immediately call law enforcement officers for violations of gun bans, and it would have established a specific misdemeanor crime for those violations. The bill’s purpose, proponents said, was to give resort operators a preventative tool to get guns off premises before further problems arose.

“It is essential that we signal to our customers all over the world that Las Vegas is the safest place to be, and this bill will help send that signal,” Ayesha Khanna Molino, MGM Resorts International’s senior vice president of public affairs, said during video testimony to lawmakers in May.

MGM, whose Mandalay Bay property was the site of the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting, was a strong supporter of the bill. Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, D-Las Vegas, a survivor of that shooting, championed it as well, as did the influential gun-safety advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Other supporters included the politically powerful Culinary Union.

Click to enlarge photo

Metro Police officers take up a position outside Planet Hollywood as an officer talks with a man Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.

The bill was spurred partly by a rash of gun violence on the Las Vegas Strip in 2020 as resort properties began to reopen from coronavirus shutdowns.

Seven shootings, including a gun discharging on the MGM Grand casino floor, occurred on the Strip from mid-July through October last year, and Metro Police confiscated 64 weapons during that three-month span.

Such violence persisted into 2021, including a March 9 murder-suicide in the Wynn parking garage and an April 25 shooting on Las Vegas Boulevard near Harmon Avenue that left one person dead and two injured.

Jauregui warned a joint judiciary committee that the shootings were a threat not only to Strip resort workers and locals patronizing resorts in the tourist corridor, but to the tourist economy.

“While we have made progress in the years since (Oct. 1), we’ve also seen continued violent incidents that have left both Nevadans and the economic engine of our state — Las Vegas tourists — questioning the safety or our community,” she said. Jauregui later added: “In a post-COVID world, we know we need to show visitors and residents alike that we are a place where you can come and forget your problems, not come to find more. We know we need every single selling point we can to get our tourism economy back on track.”

SB452 didn’t impose gun restrictions at all casinos but instead was to be instituted on an opt-in basis.

It required properties to post uniform signage to notify visitors of gun bans and, in an acknowledgement by proponents that visitors might be confused going between casinos with and without restrictions, required law enforcement to allow violators to comply with bans before arresting them.

Exemptions were included for people who are required by their employers to carry guns, such as police officers, and for special circumstances, such as for guests purchasing weapons at a trade show such as the annual SHOT Show. It also would have exempted anyone with written consent from the casino operator to carry a firearm.

Sen. Fabian Donate, D-Las Vegas, who collaborated with Cannizzaro and other proponents in drafting and amending the bill, told the Sun that his motivation in getting involved was to protect Strip workers. Donate’s father is a longtime employee at The Strat, where Donate himself got his first job working the amusement rides at the top of the tower. Several members of his family also are employed on the Strip.

“I’ve talked about this many times, that gun violence is a public health crisis,” said Donate, a graduate of the School of Public Health at UNLV. “The most useful tactic to improve public health behaviors is modifications to private industry. So I saw this as an opportunity from the public health lens to not only protect workers but to really make the entire community a safer place. And SB452 was a good public health bill that would have strengthened the safety net.”

Fault lines form

The provisions of SB452 were originally written into a larger gun bill that included the ban on ghost guns, or weapons that are generally home-assembled using component parts without serial numbers. The casino portions of the original bill were carved out, however, and placed in SB452, which was introduced as an emergency measure late in the session.

To no one’s surprise, the bill ran into opposition from Republican lawmakers, who raised concerns about Second Amendment infringement. Nothing new there — GOP legislators routinely reject gun-safety bills.

But what hadn’t been anticipated on the casino portion of the bill, and what would eventually derail the bill, is that it drew backlash from Democrats claiming it would lead to racial profiling and stop-and-frisk practices against minority casino patrons, particularly Blacks. Police unions also opposed it.

This was highly unusual, politically speaking: Groups that normally might have been at odds — such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association and law enforcement union groups — found themselves aligned. Metro Police took a neutral stance.

“It covered the entire spectrum — left, right and center — who opposed this bill because of the potential outcomes,” Athar Haseebullah, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said in an interview with the Sun. “People didn’t take issue with the intentions but rather the probable outcomes.”

But proponents said they took several measures to address concerns over disparate policing, stop-and-frisk and other potential outcomes raised by opponents.

Donate, for instance, worked with Sen. Dallas Harris, D-Las Vegas, to include a requirement for opted-in casino operators to provide security officers with training on de-escalation techniques, cultural diversity and implicit bias. These requirements would have come on top of existing federal and state anti-discrimination regulations for casino operators.

The requirement for law enforcement officers to allow suspected violators to comply was another step toward addressing the social justice concerns.

Proponents went as far as to offer to make the bill apply only to weapons being openly carried and to instances when patrons were suspected of trying to bring semiautomatic weapons into casinos.

“I don’t think (SB452) is either a front or back door to racial profiling or stop-and-frisk, frankly,” Cannizzaro told the Sun. “It’s not a stop-and-frisk policy, period. It still requires evidence that somebody has a firearm on them, and it would require law enforcement to give (suspected violators) an opportunity to comply. Additionally, these properties that are working to entertain visitors and have them feel comfortable while they’re staying here and encourage people to come to Las Vegas are not engaged in the business of, ‘How can we increase racial profiling on our properties.”

When the bill came before the Senate, Cannizzaro managed to keep that chamber’s slight majority of Democrats largely on board with the bill, and it passed on an 11-10 vote with only one Democrat, Dina Neal of North Las Vegas, voting against it.

But that was as far as SB452 progressed.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson made an attempt to galvanize support for the bill. But Democratic lawmakers formed a bright line over the criminal justice issues, which made the bill a lost cause.

Despite the provisions for voluntary compliance, implicit bias training, etc., Assembly Democrats wouldn’t budge, and the bill was not brought to a vote on the Assembly floor.

Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong, D-Las Vegas, in the joint judicial committee meeting, summarized the concerns: “We know that every single time there is an interaction with police for Black and brown people, the opportunity for it to go sideways is great, and we just don’t want that.”

Meanwhile, a common thread among both Democrat and Republican critics of the bill was to castigate casinos, specifically MGM, for the security problems on the Strip.

One GOP senator, Ira Hansen, berated MGM for attempting to get more help from law enforcement as opposed to adopting more aggressive security measures.

Hansen went so far as to say that the “only person responsible” for the Oct. 1 shooting was “the MGM people that allowed those dozen or whatever long guns to go through their service elevators and cause that kind of a mass shooting.” The remark was eyebrow-raising: What about the responsibility of the actual shooter, Stephen Paddock?

What now?

Supporters of SB452 said they wholeheartedly agreed with the need to address implicit bias and racial profiling in security and law enforcement.

But they noted that the issue was already being addressed in several bills this year that were designed to reform law enforcement practices and policies with regard to policing of minority communities.

The proponents were left feeling frustrated that a bill intended to improve public health and safety couldn’t exist on a separate track from the social justice legislation.

“I do think there is rightfully a concern about making sure that when we entrust law enforcement to do a job that they do it properly,” Cannizzaro said. “But I think it’s unfortunate that folks continued to characterize this as a stop-and-frisk bill, because this is the same policy we have for a number of places where we don’t want firearms. And not being able to see around that made people more apprehensive about what we were trying to do. I honestly still think it is good policy.”

The situation begged a question: Using the logic that SB452 was fundamentally flawed because it would result in disparate treatment of minorities, wouldn’t that also be a fundamental flaw of any law enforcement-related bill that would increase criminal penalties and lead to more interaction between police and minorities?

Let’s say there was a bill to increase the penalties for speeding in a school zone, for example. Couldn’t lawmakers defeat it on the grounds that it would lead to more minorities being racially profiled, pulled over and arrested?

Supporters of SB452 said they were disappointed that the bill’s critics came to see the two issues — public safety and police reforms — as mutually exclusive. As Cannizzaro put it, “That issue (of police bias) is not solved by SB452 passing, but it’s also not solved by SB452 not passing.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a behind-the-scenes supporter of the bill, offered similar sentiments in a statement to the Sun.

“Gun safety and police reform are among the most pressing and important issues facing our country,” Reid said. “It was unfortunate, however, to see legislation designed to prevent gun violence at our tourist destinations fail due to some pairing the bill with issues related to policing. We must address how our communities are policed — and I was pleased to see the passage of several reform bills this session — but we must also do all that we can to keep our communities and visitors safe. Gun safety and police reform are not conflicting issues. Preventing gun violence at our resorts and businesses, like police reform, should be a top priority for our Legislature. It must be addressed as soon as possible.”

Coming out of the session, supporters of SB452 say they’re undaunted in their efforts to address gun safety on the Strip and beyond.

Click to enlarge photo

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, D-Las Vegas, proponent of gun control legislation, poses for a portrait at Bottega Exchange in Las Vegas on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.

The stakes are certainly high, not just in terms of providing a safe environment for casino workers and guests but for protecting the economy of Las Vegas and, by extension, the entire state. As Jauregui stated, serious consequences could arise if ongoing gun violence leaves tourists and convention goers feeling like Las Vegas isn’t a safe place to visit.

It’s well worth remembering that after the Oct. 1 shooting, tourism in Las Vegas took a significant dip overall for several weeks, and bookings at Mandalay Bay took months to recover. The lull sparked speculation that MGM might close or rebrand the property, although neither came to pass.

Meanwhile, Southern Nevadans have indicated strong support for improved gun safety at the ballot box in recent years. In 2016, a statewide ballot question on universal background checks passed by more than 100,000 votes in Clark County, enough for the measure to carry statewide even though Clark was the only county in the state where it drew a majority of “yes” votes. Similarly, the Las Vegas Valley’s support of pro-gun-safety candidates played a key role in Democrats currently holding all but one statewide office and having majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Las Vegas also made global news in gun-safety advocacy recently when an organization led by the parents of a victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting tricked two prominent gun rights advocates into appearing in viral videos decrying gun violence. The project involved inviting the two to speak at what they were falsely told was a high school commencement rehearsal at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds, where 3,044 chairs had been set up. What the men weren’t told was that those chairs signified the number of students in the nationwide 2021 graduating class who lost their lives to gun violence. The ensuing videos revealed the purpose for those chairs and featured recordings of the men’s speeches interspersed with 911 calls from terrified students.

Meanwhile, security and law enforcement remain on high alert for gun violence on the Strip. At 3:15 p.m. this past Monday, Metro issued an alert saying officers had responded to reports of an armed person on the MGM Grand casino floor. Afterward, Metro reported finding no evidence that anyone had displayed or waved a handgun, although officers arrested an individual for disorderly conduct.

Supporters of SB452 say the ongoing potential for gun violence leaves them undaunted in their efforts to address security on the Strip.

“The safety of our guests and employees is paramount to our community, industry and economy,” Molino said in a statement to the Sun. “As a top tourism destination, it’s essential that Nevada makes clear that our state and resorts are the safest place to be. Businesses must have the tools and support they need to keep their properties safe and enjoyable for everyone. While we are disappointed that legislation failed to pass during the most recent legislative session, we will continue working with state leaders and others to address this vital issue for our state and economy.”

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