Omaha and Lincoln law enforcement officials Thursday spoke out against a legislative bill that would allow Nebraskans to carry concealed handguns without permits, saying it would make their jobs harder and jeopardize public safety.
It's an issue that, in some other states, has put police and gun rights advocates in opposing camps.
But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, said at a public hearing of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee that he is working with law enforcement officials to address their concerns.
LB773 would allow people who aren’t otherwise banned from having guns to carry concealed weapons without clearing current hurdles: passing a criminal background check, paying a $100 fee, and taking an eight- to 16-hour gun safety class.
Policies such as this are called "constitutional carry" laws in reference to some gun rights advocates’ belief that the U.S. Constitution gives people the right to carry concealed guns.
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At least 21 states have already passed such laws, including every state surrounding Nebraska except Colorado. As of Jan. 1, more than 85,500 Nebraskans were licensed to carry concealed weapons.
People could still obtain permits to carry concealed weapons, Brewer said, which they may want to do to carry a gun across state lines or potentially expedite a background check for purchasing a gun. Where guns are allowed wouldn't change, he said, and neither would laws that say you can't have a gun with alcohol or drugs in your system.
Proponents argue that the current requirements are unnecessary barriers to a fundamental right and that the costs of getting a permit and taking a class are unfair to low-income people.
“The right to keep and bear arms should not be treated like a second-class right,” Brewer said.
Those who testified in favor of the bill included gun rights advocates and instructors.
John Lott, a well-known gun rights advocate and economist, argued that the wait time for a permit is too long for someone who wants a gun urgently, such as a victim of stalking, and said "poor minorities" would benefit most from the bill.
Lott and Brewer wrote a recent op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald making many of the same arguments. (Lott co-wrote a very similar op-ed with a Florida state lawmaker published by the Orlando Sentinel last month, which attracted a rebuttal arguing that Lott's analysis was error-filled. Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln also challenged data that Lott presented at the hearing.)
Those in opposition included representatives of the Omaha police union, the Omaha Police Department and the Lincoln Police Department. Lincoln Police Chief Teresa Ewins also conveyed opposition from the Police Chiefs Association of Nebraska and the Police Officers Association of Nebraska.
They worry that the bill would counteract local efforts to reduce gun violence and hinder their ability to seize illegal guns.
"Without a permitting process and training, you'll have individuals who shouldn't be carrying and carrying without the proper skills necessary to assess the situation and determine when the lethal force is lawful," Ewins said.
Anthony Conner, president of the Omaha Police Officers Association, said he spoke with the president of the police union in Kansas City, Missouri, after a similar bill passed there and was told that it made it harder to seize guns from criminals. He said homicides have doubled there since the bill passed.
"We must oppose this bill as it's currently written," Conner said. "But I thank Sen. Brewer for his sincere interest in our concerns, his stated dedication to find a common ground, and I'm hopeful that we can do just that."
Brewer suggested that submitted comments would be more indicative of Nebraskans' view on the issue. An updated tally after the hearing counted 202 proponents of the bill, 32 opponents and two people who considered themselves "neutral."
Last year, Brewer introduced a bill to let all but Nebraska’s three largest counties — Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy — decide whether to allow permitless concealed carry. He ditched that effort after Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson raised constitutional concerns about delegating a state matter to county boards.
Brewer gave this year's broader bill his priority designation, increasing the likelihood that it will be debated. If the committee does not vote to advance the bill, Brewer said he would pursue a “pull motion” to get the bill to the floor of the Legislature for debate. That would require approval from 30 of the 49 senators.
Nineteen senators had signed onto LB773 as co-sponsors as of Thursday’s hearing. If the bill makes it to the floor, it would need to survive three rounds of debate and approval.
Gov. Pete Ricketts pledged, during a town hall meeting organized by the National Rifle Association last year, to sign a statewide constitutional carry bill if it gets to his desk.
Meet the Nebraska state senators
Nebraska's state senators
State Sen. Julie Slama, District 1
State Sen. Robert Clements, District 2
State Sen. Carol Blood, District 3
State Sen. Robert Hilkemann, District 4
State Sen. Mike McDonnell, District 5
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, District 6
State Sen. Megan Hunt, District 8
State Sen. John Cavanaugh, District 9
State Sen. Wendy DeBoer, District 10
State Sen. Terrell McKinney, District 11
State Sen, Steve Lathrop, District 12
State Sen, Justin Wayne, District 13
State Sen. John Arch, District 14
State Sen. Lynne Walz, District 15
State Sen. Ben Hansen, District 16
State Sen. Joni Albrecht, District 17
State Sen. Brett Lindstrom, District 18
State Sen. Mike Flood, District 19
State Sen. John McCollister, District 20
State Sen. Mike Hilgers, District 21
State Sen. Mike Moser, District 22
State Sen. Bruce Bostelman, District 23
State Sen. Mark Kolterman, District 24
State Sen. Suzanne Geist, District 25
State Sen. Matt Hansen, District 26
State Sen, Anna Wishart, District 27
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, District 28
State Sen. Eliot Bostar, District 29
State Sen,.Myron Dorn, District 30
State Sen. Rich Pahls, District 31
State Sen. Tom Brandt, District 32
State Sen. Steve Halloran, District 33
State Sen. Curt Friesen, District 34
State Sen. Raymond Aguilar, District 35
State Sen. Matt Williams, District 36
State Sen. John Lowe, District 37
State Sen. Dave Murman, District 38
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, District 39
State Sen. Tim Graget, District 40
State Sen. Tom Briese, District 41
State Sen. Mike Groene, District 42
State Sen. Tom Brewer, District 43
State Sen. Dan Hughes, District 44
State Sen. Rita Sanders, District 45
State Sen. Adam Morfeld, District 46
State Sen. Steve Erdman, District 47
State Sen. John Stinner, District 48
State Sen. Jen Day, District 49
State Sen. Mike Jacobson, District 42