LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — Just a few hours after congressional candidate John Oceguera announced he was terminating his lifetime membership with the National Rifle Association, the angry comments began flooding his inbox and Facebook page, calling him, among other slurs, a “pussy traitor,” “kool aid-drinking zombie,” and “libtard.”
“May be [sic] he can get an endorsement from the Muslim brotherhood?” mused one commentator, while another advised, “Castrate yourself.”
Sitting in his office on the western edge of Las Vegas, the former Nevada Assembly Speaker and Democratic candidate for Congress told ThinkProgress that the “vitriolic” reaction has only strengthened his resolve.
“The NRA does a lot of good things, like with hunting safety, but they’ve just become so stringent and won’t compromise on any issue,” he said. “It’s like you can’t say anything about commonsense gun reform without people screaming, ‘You’re taking our guns!’ or ‘You’re an idiot’ or a lot worse than that. When I made this announcement, I became enemy number one. But do I really want to belong to an organization where I can’t have an opinion that’s just slightly different?”
Oceguera, a fourth generation Nevadan who grew up on the Walker River Indian Reservation, is an unlikely “enemy number one” for the NRA.
He owns multiple guns, including a .22 rifle that belonged to his grandmother and a double-barrel shotgun that belonged to his great uncle. He grew up hunting ducks and other game at the state’s Greenhead Hunting Club, and became a life member of the NRA in the early 2000s. During his time in the Nevada State Assembly, he helped pass bills to make it easier for people with concealed carry permits to carry weapons in neighboring states, and to not have to get re-permitted for every firearm.
But his views began to change when he moved to Las Vegas and joined the fire department, a job that for nearly 25 years put him face-to-face with “dozens if not hundreds” of gunshot victims and their grieving families. Then, both his father and a good friend committed suicide with guns. The former had a history of domestic violence, while the latter struggled for years with mental illness.
“That, coupled with seeing Congress’ inaction [on gun control] made me say, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Oceguera told ThinkProgress. “I still own guns for self-protection in my home, and I’m going to teach my kids gun safety and have already started doing that. But I now think there are some people — who are criminals, who have mental illness, who are on the watch list — who shouldn’t have guns. It’s as simple as that. And I think that if law-abiding NRA members and gun owners like myself don’t stand up and say, ‘Geez, enough is enough. Let’s do something,’ then nothing is going to happen.”
Oceguera is grappling with the gun control question at a time his state is doing the same. Nevada will vote on a ballot initiative in 2016 that would close a current loophole that allows people to buy a gun in a private sale without passing a background check. The state chapter of the NRA is vehemently opposing the measure, though much of the public, like Oceguera, supports it.
“There’s never been a gun that I’ve purchased where I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, or three days from now,” he told ThinkProgress. “If you have to have it today maybe there’s an issue there.”
Do I really want to belong to an organization where I can’t have an opinion that’s just slightly different?
Yet the NRA’s influence in Nevada may be strong enough to defeat the measure.
In 2011, the gun lobby showered Republican Dean Heller with campaign donations that helped him secure a Senate seat, and successfully tanked the nomination of federal judicial nominee Elissa Cadish in 2013 after she wrote that she doesn’t believe Americans have the constitutional right to own guns. When he was serving in the State Assembly, Oceguera remembers the NRA’s lobbyist being “very present and very active.”
“There were checks delivered. There was influence there for sure,” he said. “But at the state level we’re talking about 500 bucks here or there. Nobody’s voting for the money. It’s nothing like the federal level, where we’re talking millions and millions of dollars.”
Now, Oceguera worries some of those NRA millions may flow to whoever runs against him next year. “I would assume that if I’m fortunate enough to win the primary, they will go all in on the other side,” he said.
If he wins the Democratic primary against his three opponents and goes on to win a House seat in the general election, Oceguera says he would not push for sweeping gun control measures right away. When asked if he would support a current effort from congressional Democrats to ban assault weapons, he demurred: “I don’t think you need to go too far. I got things passed in Nevada by not taking too big a bite of the apple.”
Instead, he would begin to “earn the trust of folks” by pushing more narrow measures that impact fewer people.
“You’ve got to start with the basics, like stopping people with mental illness and past criminal histories of domestic violence or assault from buying guns,” he said. “Then you move to people who are on the no-fly list and the terrorist watch list. I know it’s not easy. But if you’re a law-abiding gun owner and your name ends up on that list, you’re going to go figure out why and clear it up. It may be burdensome, but that’s not going to be a lot of folks. And really, this is a national security issue.”
While his renunciation of the NRA has dominated the news about his campaign, Oceguera says he is far from a one-issue candidate. He also supports another ballot measure that will come before Nevadans next year to legalize recreational marijuana, though he says it took him several years to “evolve” on that stance.
“In my fire department experience, I did see people who went from marijuana to harder drugs, but I think controlling it, and getting the revenue that comes from it, could help fix some of those problems,” he said. “Our prison population is full of people who are there because of minor marijuana charges, and that’s costing us bazillions. What we’ve done with ‘Just say no,’ and locking everybody up is not working.”