LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Officials in Omaha and Lincoln raised concerns Friday about a Nebraska bill that would overturn local gun regulations in favor of statewide policies, but one gun lobbyist suggested that lawmakers will face a backlash if they try to weaken it.
Elected city leaders and Omaha’s police union voiced opposition to the proposal, which supporters say would eliminate a patchwork of local rules.
If the bill passes, Nebraska would join a growing list of states that have pre-empted local gun laws at the urging of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups. One gun lobbyist described the measure as one of his group’s most important issues in this year’s session.
“Any attempts to alter this bill to weaken it, even under the excuse that it will make it more palatable to anti-gun senators, will be reported to gun owners in your district,” Charles Cox, executive director of Nebraska Gun Owners, said in testimony to a legislative committee.
Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln said he sponsored the bill to keep lawful gun owners from unintentionally violating a city ordinance, such as possession in Omaha without registering with their weapon. Hilgers said the bill would protect out-of-town gun owners who unintentionally violate a local ordinance when passing through a city.
“Such laws vastly differ across jurisdictions, putting Nebraskans unknowingly at risk” of facing fines or confiscation of their property, Hilgers said.
He said he knows of other such cases in Nebraska, but not the overall number of individuals impacted by the law.
Opponents said the bill fails to consider differences between higher-crime areas of Omaha and Lincoln and the rest of the state.
Omaha Police Sgt. Aaron Hanson said his city’s gun registry plays a crucial role in law enforcement efforts, as do local rules designed to clamp down on gun violence. Hanson said he was willing to work with Hilgers on a compromise, but can’t support the bill in its current form.
The Omaha Police Officers’ Association has said the registry allows officers to deny guns to the mentally ill and known gang associates, and lets them know in advance whether a person with an outstanding arrest warrant owns a handgun. Local gun restrictions on juveniles also help curb gang violence, he said.
Lincoln’s current gun ordinances prohibit gun possession on city buses, in landfills and parks, and in city and county buildings. One ordinance gives the mayor power to restrict gun sales and possession during a declared state of emergency. Mayor Chris Beutler opposed the bill in a letter to the committee but did not attend the hearing; Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt said a majority of his colleagues did not support it.
The Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association supports the measure despite concerns about pre-empting gun restrictions in county buildings, said Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner. Wagner said Lincoln has stricter gun ownership laws than surrounding Lancaster County, which has created confusion for local gun owners.
The bill would give lawmakers sole power to regulate gun ownership, possession, transportation, carrying, registration, transfers and storage. Local governments could still pass ordinances to keep guns from being fired within city limits or to regulate firearms used by law enforcement.
A similar measure was defeated by a legislative filibuster last year when supporters fell one vote short of the support needed to bring the bill to a vote. Both sides tried to reach an agreement to preserve some of the local laws, but reached an impasse over an Omaha ordinance that requires owners to register guns with the city’s police department.
Critics also railed against the decision to route the bill to the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, a panel stacked with conservative Republican senators, some of whom have co-sponsored the measure and accepted contributions from gun lobbyists. Gun-rights bills have traditionally gone to the Judiciary Committee, a group known to sharply question such measures.
“We fear this committee’s purpose is to lubricate, not deliberate,” said Amanda Gailey, a lobbyist for Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, who argued that current local rules “have kept Nebraskans safe for years.”