State Sens. Jane Raybould, left, and Tom Brewer meet on the floor of the Legislature during debate on Brewer’s gun legislation on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Lincoln. Raybould emerged as a primary opponent to the concealed carry legislation. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Nebraskans who want to carry concealed handguns in public will soon be able to do so legally without a state permit or state-mandated gun safety training.
Once the bill becomes law, Omaha and Lincoln will lose the authority to enforce the stricter city gun ordinances, which local police chiefs and police unions have said helped them prevent some gang-related violent crimes.
The Legislature gave final approval Wednesday to Legislative Bill 77, sponsored by State Sen. Tom Brewer, aimed at reducing state and local restrictions on handgun possession. It’s the seventh year Brewer has sought passage of such a bill.
Brewer, a retired Army colonel who represents north-central Nebraska, celebrated an end to years of confusion about where Nebraskans can carry a concealed handgun because of varying local restrictions. He said his only aim was to ensure people could freely exercise their constitutional right.
“The hundreds of hours meeting with individuals, law enforcement, cities, trying to weave through all the obstacles, we finally got there,” Brewer said. “It was a good day. It was a good win. We got a constitutional right back for people who should have that right.”
State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar described Wednesday as “a wonderful day for our Second Amendment rights in Nebraska!” Her comments echoed the views of other conservatives.
Opponents call changes dangerous
Opponents of the bill, including the police chiefs and mayors in Omaha and Lincoln, have told lawmakers the state needs different public safety approaches in rural and urban Nebraska.
State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha said the state should have done what it has done with other laws, which is to tailor them to the needs of the type of city affected.
“I am hearing from people in my community that they do not want this bill passed,” he said.
State Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln led much of the organized resistance to the bill during floor debate. She said statistics from 34 states that have passed fewer restrictions on carrying concealed handguns indicate that more Nebraskans will be injured and killed in gun violence after the passage of LB 77.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list guns as the leading cause of death nationally for young people, although some conservatives have challenged the accuracy of the statistics.
“We have become one nation under guns,” Raybould said. “And that is not an American value, nor even a moral value.”
State Sen. Jen Day of Omaha warned that the bill would make it legal for an elderly man with dementia or someone accused of a violent felony to carry a concealed handgun. Day, Raybould and Sen. John Cavanaugh warned of unintended consequences of the bill’s language, which would eliminate city ordinances about weapons that are more restrictive than state law.
Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte joined several senators from central and western Nebraska who said criminals aren’t worried about following the law and that they are already armed.
“We have laws out there that say you can’t possess drugs,” Jacobson said. “How is that working?”
Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings joked that he might propose a bill requiring criminals to take a gun safety course.
Emotions were high during the rare filibuster on the third and final reading for the bill — both on the legislative floor and among visitors in the gallery.
Immediately after LB 77 passed, the Nebraska State Patrol removed a local gun-control advocate from the gallery after she yelled “shame” to senators from the balcony. She shouted that voters would remember their decision. She was later banned from the Capitol.
McDonnell overcomes filibuster
LB 77 received exactly the 33 votes it needed to overcome a filibuster, requiring the votes of all 32 Republicans in the Legislature and one Democrat, State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha. Last year, a similar Brewer bill fell two votes short of ending a filibuster.
Two other Omaha Democrats who had previously voted to end debate on the bill, State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, didn’t attend the vote Wednesday. Brewer said he had worried their absence might make him wait another year on the bill.
McDonnell, a former president of the union representing Omaha firefighters, credited Brewer for working with local law enforcement unions to address some of their concerns. He said that’s why he supported the bill, which passed 33-14.
Sgt. Anthony Conner of the Omaha Police Officers Association said the union worked with Brewer to blunt the worst potential impacts of the bill.
Conner said Brewer amended his bill to clarify that people who commit felonies and lose their gun rights will face felonies for carrying guns, instead of a misdemeanor. And repeatedly refusing to tell law enforcement officers about a concealed handgun will be a felony.
The Omaha and Lincoln police unions do worry, though, about losing local gun ordinances. Local law enforcement officers sometimes enforce those ordinances more stringently after shootings to turn down the temperature on escalating fights between gangs.
“We were glad he worked with us, but it would be inaccurate to say we support the bill,” Conner said. “Senator Brewer said he would work with us in the future if we see problems.”
State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said most law enforcement agencies in Nebraska supported LB 77, including the county sheriffs association.
Still some limits
Carrying a concealed handgun is still restricted under LB 77 in certain places. Among them: bars, churches, hospitals, banks, schools, government buildings and courtrooms. After the bill becomes law, Nebraskans won’t legally be able to carry a concealed handgun at government meetings, political rallies, major sporting events, police stations, jails or prisons.
Nebraska law already allows people to openly carry guns in most places, including the Capitol, as long as the weapon is visible.
But adults 21 and over who haven’t lost their gun rights will be able to legally carry at most other places in the state. They won’t be able to carry while having alcohol or drugs in their system. People can lose their gun rights if they are convicted of a felony or have been civilly committed.
Gov. Jim Pillen plans to sign the bill into law Tuesday. LB 77 has no emergency clause, so it will become law 90 days after the legislative session ends.
Nebraska Examiner intern Zach Wendling contributed to this report.
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