Three bills which would alter Nebraska fire-arm laws were the topic of controversy on Thursday, Jan. 26, for four and half hours.
Dozens of constituents gathered in front of the Judiciary Committee at the Nebraska State Capitol to testify on separate bills that would, respectively, waive training requirements for concealed carry permits, require suicide awareness training for the same permits and allow off-duty police officers to carry handguns when picking up their children on school grounds.
LB77, a bill designed to allow concealed carrying of handguns without a permit, produced the most debate of the day. Introduced by State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, the bill would establish a “constitutional carry” law, based on the belief that the right to bear concealed arms is enumerated under the Constitution.
Currently in Nebraska, under the Concealed Handgun Permit Act, Nebraskans must complete a state-approved handgun training and safety course, get finger-printed and fill out an application, to obtain a permit. Brewer’s proposed bill would end that process.
An overflowing amount of constituents arrived to testify on LB77, causing the 30+ proponents and 20+ opponents to be separated into different rooms to accommodate everyone.
Numerous groups, including the Nebraska Firearm Owners Association, Nebraska Freedom Coalition and Nebraska Criminal Defense Association, testified to the Judicial Committee in their support.
Supporters of the bill resoundingly directed attention toward both the United States and Nebraska constitutions as proof that any required training was an infringement of personal rights.
Proponents primarily objected to the financial aspect of these permits, saying the initial $100 permit fee, specifically for Concealed Handgun Permits, was unconstitutional.
“Constitutional carry makes it possible for hard-working, low-income citizens to protect themselves without undue burden,” Aaron Clements, who supported the measure, said.
Almost every person testifying in support of LB77 cited the Second Amendment in their criticism of Nebraska’s current laws. As the current process requires citizens to register with the state as licensed gun owners, some see that as government overreach.
“Subjecting my privacy to possible government intrusion by requiring state registration of my person, so to lawfully conceal a firearm endangers my constitutional rights,” Bruce Desautel of Stratton testified.
Brewer, along with multiple proponents, pointed out the nationwide precedent of constitutional carry. Twenty-six states currently allow concealed carry without a permit, including each state bordering Nebraska, minus Colorado.
“We’re not trying to find something that’s impossible, difficult, scary or anything else,” Brewer said. “Missouri has big cities. So why our police would be unable to do the same quality work in the same conditions of constitutional states as other states, I do not know.”
Heads of police departments in Nebraska’s two major cities, Omaha and Lincoln, both spoke out against the bill, testifying that it would make their job increasingly difficult.
Todd Schmaderer, Omaha police chief, responded to Brewer’s comment about Missouri’s success without concealed carry permits, saying he would not look to replicate their major cities. He compared the St. Louis crime rate, which is the second highest in the country with 200 homicides last year, to Omaha’s 30.
“There is no comparison,” Schmaderer said.
Sgt. Brian Demvinski with the Omaha Police Department said he opposes the bill because of the protections placed for non-law-abiding citizens despite being a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, which he said the vast majority of police officers are.
Currently, Nebraskan permit holders are beholden by the Duty to Inform, and must announce the presence of a firearm when making contact with a police officer. LB77 would drop the penalty for anyone committing a crime who is caught with a hidden firearm.
“The bill, as written, represents a significant threat to the personal safety of every police officer in this state,” Demvinski said.
For other opponents, the rise in mass shootings nationwide presented reason enough for some regulation. Lincoln resident John Lee cited the 70 deaths by mass shootings in the United States in just 2023 and said more guns would not solve the problem.
“If you think you need to carry a gun to defend yourself, I would suggest carrying it openly, because I, and many others, would not want to get anywhere near you,” Lee said.
Along with others, Lee debated the validity of “constitutional carry” and brought a single-shot rifle made in 1869, saying it was the only type of firearm known by the Founding Fathers. He left the rifle before testifying.
Although speaking in opposition to the bill, Schmaderer proposed a solution for city ordinances to be added, which would effectively separate Omaha and Lincoln from the legislation.
State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha pushed back on calls for these ordinances only in Nebraska’s two major cities. Because 76% of Black Nebraskans live in Omaha or Lincoln, according to the 2020 census, McKinney said a carve-out would disproportionately target Black citizens and other Nebraskans of color.
Schmaderer told him that, down the line, Brewer’s bill could potentially decrease the disproportionate number of arrests of Black people in Omaha. Because of this, McKinney repeatedly criticized their request for a city ordinance in the legislation and said it would effectively tell Black people in Lincoln and Omaha to move to another city.
“They’re coming asking for a carve-out when a huge portion of the state’s population of minority individuals are in Lincoln and Omaha,” McKinney said. “You’re pretty much saying, ‘Carve out everybody but the cities where most minorities live in our state.’ And that is super offensive.”
(Content warning: suicide)
Suicide Prevention Training
The Judiciary Committee also heard testimony over LB314, a bill that would require suicide prevention training as part of the process for registering for a concealed handgun permit. State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha proposed the bill, which includes a requirement to include information on the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Public testimony was unanimously in favor of the bill, with six speaking in favor and none in opposition.
Proponents stated that a level of intervention could be a needed stopping point for an individual purchasing a gun with the intention of suicide. Currently, suicide makes up 75% of gun deaths in Nebraska, and Nebraska’s suicide rate of 14.9 is above the national average of 13.
“As a mental health expert myself, I know that with every touch point for an individual in an acute crisis we can move the needle and decrease behavior that might be based on impulsivity,” Fredrickson said. “Because it can be so difficult to know when someone is having thoughts of suicide, it is vital to have these touchpoints in place.”
Opponents of Brewer’s bill drew lines to LB314 as well, saying firearm education cuts would directly oppose the suicide prevention efforts by Frederickson’s bill. Melody Vaccaro, on behalf of Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, said cutting training requirements for concealed carry permits would weaken opportunities for suicide prevention.
“We were talking about how important it was for the expansion of education for the Suicide Prevention Hotline and suicide prevention resources, so by repealing touchpoints with the gun-carrying community, it would minimize its impact,” she said.
Multiple testifiers shared experiences of personal loss due to firearm suicide.
Kearney resident Amanda Pearson spoke about the loss of her husband. She described feeling lost and confused, losing her job and home, to the point of feeling suicidal.
She discussed purchasing a handgun for the sole purpose of completing suicide, at the time unaware of preventative resources available to help her. She described the simplicity of getting a permit and purchasing a gun for that reason.
“[People] go to the gun shop and purchase a firearm with the intention of using it once,” Pearson said. “What if the informationabout 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or even resources about suicide prevention that these hurting souls receive become the one intervention they need to reach out and ask for help?”
Off-duty officer’s firearm on school grounds
Constituents also testified on a bill that would authorize firearm possession on school grounds by off-duty police officers. Introduced by State Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln, LB17 would allow an officer picking up their kid from school to maintain their gun legally
Three individuals testified in support of the bill, while one spoke in opposition.
Dungan began by amending his initial bill, clarifying that the bill is designed strictly for law enforcement officers taking their kids to and from school while maintaining their firearm, determining his original bill was “overly vague.”
He specified that it would not allow off-duty officers to carry firearms on school grounds for any other purpose.
“I am a strong proponent of gun safety and oppose allowing more guns onto school grounds,” Dungan said. “This poses a safety hazard, and I believe schools should be and remain gun-free zones. However, I trust our peace officers.”
Representatives of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police, Omaha Police Officer’s Association and he Douglas County Sheriff’s Office testified in support of LB17, calling it a “common sense bill.”
They discussed the logistic challenges present when officers drop off their students on their way to work because they have a gun due to their employment. The possession of a firearm on school grounds is a felony in Nebraska.
“The last thing we want to have is some kind of inadvertent violation of the law when an officer leaves work armed to pick up their kids,” proponent Jim Maguire of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police said.
Proponents also highlighted the training police officers undergo, saying their experience in handling firearms doesn’t vanish once their duty day ends.
Vaccaro singularly spoke in opposition to the bill, emphasizing that law enforcement officers cannot be exempt from laws.
“We have a lot of trust in police as a society,” Vaccaro said. “We expect them to protect the public and ensure public safety, but they have to be pillars of the law themselves.”
She highlighted current exceptions where officers can use a safe storage method and leave their unloaded guns locked up In the car. Holders of concealed carry permits can also safely store their firearms in their vehicle if prior to exiting, the handgun is unloaded and locked inside the glove box or trunk.
The eight-member Judiciary Committee will decide which bills will move to the floor.