Gun rights advocates flex muscles, advance constitutional carry bill

Critics voice concerns about rise in mass shootings, suicides with guns

By: - March 3, 2023 12:27 pm
tom brewer

After six years of trying, State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon was able to win passage this spring of a state law allowing “constitutional carry” of concealed guns. The law did away with the requirement of passing a handgun training course to obtain a state permit. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Gun rights advocates flexed their legislative muscle Friday as a “permitless” concealed carry bill — which has failed to pass in previous years — easily won first-round approval.

Legislative Bill 77 would allow people to carry a concealed weapon without obtaining a state permit and passing a gun safety course. It would also nullify local gun ordinances, such as those in Omaha and Lincoln.

The bill overcame a three-day-long filibuster and was advanced on a 36-12 vote.

It advanced despite opposition from the mayors and police chiefs of the state’s two largest cities, Omaha and Lincoln. The main sponsor of the bill said the conservative shift in the 49-seat Unicameral this year certainly helped the measure.

Freshmen ‘focused on 2nd Amendment’

“We have a group of freshmen (senators) who are a little more 2nd Amendment focused,” said State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a decorated veteran, competitive shooter and longtime gun rights advocate.

It was unclear whether or not Friday’s vote provides momentum for passage of other conservative proposals this year. 

The Nebraska Legislature shifted to the right this year with the exit, because of term limits, of a group of moderate leaders.

Coincidentally, a wave of conservative and “culture war” style bills were introduced this year, addressing trans rights, banning minors from attending drag shows, blocking classes about race that could generate guilt and prohibiting state investments based on environmental considerations.

The shift also has inspired new optimism for long-defeated ideas such as providing public funds for private schools as well as the so-called “constitutional carry” gun bill.

A ‘far right free-for-all’

Brewer, though, said gun rights is probably a different type of issue from the others, citing the school choice proposal.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, who voted “no” on advancing the gun bill, also thought that LB 77 was a different type of issue, because it dealt with personal rights.

But she lamented that in past years, chairs of legislative committees and the Speaker of the Legislature had worked to keep “extreme” legislation off the floor.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

“Now it’s a far-right free-for-all,” Hunt said.

During debate on LB 77, Brewer argued that law-abiding Nebraskans should not have to pay to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms. It costs $100 for a state concealed carry permit and $100-$200 for the required training course.

He pointed out that it’s already legal to carry a firearm openly in Nebraska, except in businesses and other places where it is prohibited. At least one advocate called LB 77 a “slight modification” in state law.

If you put on a coat, you’re ‘a criminal’

“Please, just stop, take a deep breath, and recognize that you can openly carry,” Brewer told critics of the bill. “You put on a coat, and you become a criminal, or you drive through a different town.”

“We just want to clean up the laws so you can protect yourself, your family and your business,” the senator said.

But opponents insisted that LB 77 would “normalize” the proliferation of guns, saying that has contributed to a rise in teen suicides and gun violence.

State Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln speaks on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Lincoln Sen. Jane Raybould said the bill would make guns more accessible for people who want to do harm to others or to harm themselves.

More guns, more suicides

“The states with the most guns … they report the most suicides,” said Raybould, adding that states with stricter gun laws report less gun violence.

Gun-related deaths

Nebraska had the 10th lowest rate of gun-related deaths in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control latest statistics. States with lower gun death rates included California, New York and New Jersey. Of the bottom 10 states, only New Hampshire allows permitless concealed carry.

The three states with the highest rates of gun deaths are Mississippi, Louisiana and Wyoming.

Of the 10 states that have the highest rates of gun deaths, only New Mexico and South Carolina do not allow permitless carry, and South Carolina is considering a bill this year to allow it.

Hunt said that given the “scourge” of mass shootings in recent months, it wasn’t the time to change gun laws.

Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln, who also voted no, said people are enraged after every new mass shooting in the country and they wonder why policies don’t change. 

‘Do something’

“There’s a generation of people asking us to do something,” Dungan said.

But several rural senators said their constituents overwhelmingly support gun rights and dropping the requirement of a state concealed carry permit.

As of the first of the year, 89,622 Nebraskans had obtained such permits, and supporters of LB 77 said that people will still seek out the permits because it gives them reciprocity rights to carry concealed in other states.

Brewer and other advocates maintained that LB 77 had nothing to do with the proliferation of guns and gun violence in the U.S. Criminals, they said, will continue to obtain guns illegally if necessary.

Elmwood Sen. Robert Clements cited instances, over the past eight years, in which armed homeowners were able to stop or shoot an intruder.

And Brewer said during his visits to Ukraine last year, he heard many people express helplessness because they could not access a firearm due to that country’s strict gun laws.

Permit law remains

Advocates of LB 77 said Nebraskans who want to purchase a handgun will still have to obtain a state permit and submit to a criminal background check.

If LB 77 clears two more rounds of debate and is signed into law, Nebraska will become the 26th state in the nation to allow so-called “constitutional carry.”

Two Omaha senators, Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, voted in favor of LB 77 after voicing objections to how police use an Omaha gun ordinance to target Black and brown kids for traffic stops. The bill would nullify Omaha’s gun registration law.

Geist, McDonnell now supporters

Wayne said Friday that he still has concerns about an amendment attached to the bill, sought by the Omaha Police Officers Association, and how it expands the definition of a “prohibited person” who could face longer jail sentences if found carrying a gun during a crime.

The Omaha senator said he plans to work with Brewer to amend the bill.

Two senators who voted “present and not voting” on a similar constitutional carry bill last year were among those voting “yes” on Friday — Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell and Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist.

Geist, who is a candidate for Lincoln mayor this year, has introduced an amendment to LB 77 that she said would determine whether she would support the measure.

McDonnell, who has said he’s considering a run for mayor in Omaha in 2025, said the neutral stance of the Omaha police union -—adopted after their amendment was adopted Friday — helped convince him to vote “yes.” 


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.