As We See It

Hot-button issues find their way onto license plates

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The six-shooter is losing. Not because President Obama wants to make it harder to buy and sell—we’re talking about a license plate designed by the Nevada Firearms Coalition, one of four being voted on by supporters of its “Protect the Second Amendment” specialty-plate proposal. The big revolver has been trailing an old-timey soldier and armed-cowboy silhouette, though subtlety doesn’t really become the subject.

Or the space. The backs of cars are billboards for raw opinions, whether it’s “Screw Leukemia” or “Teach Your Kids About Taxes, Eat 35 Percent of Their Ice Cream.” They get way more colorful, but those are bumper stickers, not specialty plates, which are issued by a state agency and raise funds for sponsoring organizations. In Nevada they’ve brought in nearly $50 million since 1998, supporting everything from mammogram accessibility to historical preservation through the Nevada Test Site. In 2002, the Test Site Historical Foundation’s mushroom-cloud design was rejected by the DMV for being "insensitive to the times," as it touched nerves related to nuclear waste, weapons and terrorism. In his 17 years with the DMV, spokesman Kevin Malone says it’s the only one he recalls being squashed based on content (hence the happy atom we see today). “Most of them are simply charities looking to raise funds, and there’s nothing controversial.”

Given the raging debate about guns in America, you have to wonder if anyone will protest the Second Amendment plate. Already approved by the Legislature, the proposal is 11th on the waiting list of specialty plates to be produced as current first-tier designs (capped at 30) fall below the minimum of 1,000 active registrations. Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, who chairs the Nevada Commission on Special License Plates, asserts that as the Second Amendment is part of the U.S. Constitution, it's not a “political agenda,” however hotly gun rights are argued. And whatever the Nevada Firearms Coalition's final design submission is, Wheeler says it could still be rejected by the DMV. Summarized on its site, requirements range from the sponsoring organization posting a surety bond of $5,000 (first tier) or $10,000 (second tier), to the plate not promoting “any specific religion, faith or anti-religious belief.”

That's the sticking point for another specialty plate on deck, a pro-life design put forth by the Women’s Resource Medical Centers of Southern Nevada last fall. Elisa Cafferata, president and CEO of Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood Affiliates, sent a letter of concern to the Commission on Special License Plates in October, focusing on the specific religious nature of the group's mission statement. Malone says the application and proposed plate, featuring an infant’s face with “Values Life” under “Nevada,” are being reviewed by DMV attorneys.

“To me, they met all the requirements,” says Wheeler, a pro-life Republican who voted yes in the commission’s 3-to-1 approval of that plate. Asked about the sensitivity of certain content, and the potential for public backlash when the state is the mechanism for supporting causes tied to ideologies some don't agree with, he adds, “Obviously you don’t want anything that’s going to offend. But the fact is that what is offensive to some is not offensive to others or may be very important to others. And that’s one of the most amazing things about this country—that we have that right to get out there and put our views out. ... You do have the right to say and believe whatever you want, as long as you’re not hurting someone else.”

Slate recently mapped all the states where similar "Choose Life" plates are available, totaling 29. New York is not among them, because a federal appeals court ruled in May 2015 that "license plates are government property and the agency had the right to reject the message," which the New York DMV feared might lead to incidents of road rage due to the plate "advocating politically sensitive and emotionally charged issues." Texas does have the "Choose Life" plate, among hundreds of other specialty messages ranging from "Rather Be Golfing" to a prisoner of war medallion. But in June, the Supreme Court ruled five to four that Texas didn’t violate the First Amendment in refusing to allow a Confederate flag plate, though The New York Times reported nine other states offer the option.

States have different viewpoints, like people. In one day I saw a TREHGGR plate and a window decal of eight guns with the quip, “You have your family. I have mine.” Personal sentiments—no chance of the perception of government endorsement like there is with a specialty plate. We can choose its letters and ring it with rhinestones, but the foundation doesn’t feel like it belongs to us.

Wherever we share opinions, there’s no consensus on what’s offensive. Or what counts as a service to the community, which the rules on specialty plates say must benefit from the revenue they generate. You might oppose wildlife conservation or the Nevada Wolf Pack, but those plates are out there. The mushroom cloud isn't, though Wheeler says he likely would've voted for it, especially because he remembers his dad taking him to the top of the Sands to watch the blasts. “I think it’s a very, very interesting part of our history here. And you don’t have to buy the darn plate if you don’t want to.”

Tags: Politics, News, Guns
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