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Hell hath frozen over, (or at least chilled a little)

State affiliate bucks national stance, supporting the right to bear arms
By David McGrath Schwartz

Published Fri, Jul 11, 2008 (2 a.m.)

Updated Fri, Jul 11, 2008 (10:06 a.m.)

CARSON CITY — Everyone loves guns in Nevada. Ducks Unlimited, the National Rifle Association, Republicans, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ...

Wait. The ACLU?

The Nevada ACLU has declared its support for an individual’s right to bear arms, apparently making it the first state affiliate in the nation to buck the national organization’s position on the Second Amendment.

The state board of directors reached the decision this month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects the rights of individuals to own handguns.

“The Nevada ACLU respects the individual’s right to bear arms subject to constitutionally permissible regulations,” a statement on the organization’s Web site said. “The ACLU of Nevada will defend this right as it defends other constitutional rights.”

“This was the consensus,” said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for ACLU of Nevada. “There really wasn’t a lot of dissent.”

But the state affiliate’s position puts it at odds with the national organization.

The New York City-based ACLU disagrees with the Supreme Court ruling, saying in a statement that it interprets the Second Amendment as a collective right to own guns and not an individual one.

“In our view, neither the possession of guns nor the regulation of guns raises a civil liberties issue,” according to the position on its Web page.

It’s that position that has long infuriated gun rights advocates.

Larry Rhodes, president of the Stillwater Firearms Association, a Northern Nevada advocacy group, said the state ACLU’s position “is a wonderful thing.”

“I’m thrilled the Nevada ACLU, which seems to support the other nine Bill of Rights, has decided to do this,” Rhodes said.

John Cahill, chairman of the Nevada Outdoor Democrats, said he had not been a member of the ACLU because of its position.

“I resented their position on the Second Amendment,” Cahill said. “I’d be happy to be a card-carrying member of the Nevada ACLU.”

The phrase “card-carrying member of the ACLU” has long been used by conservatives as a liberal curse, perhaps most famously against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said the decision was not political, nor a slap at the national organization. He said the ACLU of Nevada often defends both conservative and liberal groups when, in its view, a constitutional right is being violated.

“This was a legal, constitutional decision for us,” he said. “Right now, it’s an issue percolating in the ACLU universe. It should be no surprise that an issue that has sparked a lot of issues and debate outside the ACLU has sparked debate inside the ACLU.”

The national ACLU, in a statement by a spokeswoman, said, “ACLU affiliates are free to take positions that differ from those of the national office.”

The spokeswoman said she was unaware of any other ACLU affiliate that had taken a differing position on the Second Amendment.

Peck said the state has a history of opposing government involvement in people’s lives.

“Nevada has a long, proud tradition of libertarian skepticism of government overreach,” Peck said. “An individual’s right to bear arms, not surprisingly, is in the Nevada constitution.”

Even when gun control was a major national issue during the 1990s, Nevada’s strong gun culture knew no party lines.

State Sen. John Lee, a North Las Vegas Democrat, has sponsored a number of bills on people’s right to carry guns.

He pointed to the gun park being built north of Las Vegas, the first phase of which will cost $64 million.

“We’re a hunting state,” Lee said. “Here in Nevada, we’re a real pragmatic group of Democrats.” (Democratic state Sen. Dina Titus, during her run for governor in 2006, liked to point out that she owned a gun.)

Attempts to find a Nevada group or affiliate in favor of stricter gun control were unsuccessful.

Bob Fulkerson, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said he did not know of any such organizations in the state.

The gun control issue “has never really come up,” he said. “It’s ironic because we are one of the leaders in handgun-related deaths.”

Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said he recognizes different parts of cultures have different experiences with guns.

“Certain areas of the country have very strong traditions and take great pride in them,” he said. “I think the real shame is we could have better firearm laws without preventing law-abiding citizens from owning guns.”

Peck said he anticipates Nevadans will come to his group to protect their gun rights.

“I have no doubt people will be making inquiries on their rights,” he said. “I have no doubt we’ll be stepping to the plate on Second Amendment rights, if they come under assault by governments. In this state, of course, I don’t see any big rush by lawmakers.”

(Editor's Note: This story has been corrected. The original version had a headline that incorrectly stated the organization’s position on gun control. The ACLU of Nevada supports gun control within constitutional limits. The state affiliate has recognized an individual’s right to bear arms, a break from the national organization’s position.)
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