LINCOLN — Members of the Omaha Police Department recently arrested a man who was driving around with a rifle leaning between his right leg and the center console.
The man posted photos of an AR-15 on social media as he drove. The rifle was loaded. And he is a member of the 38th Street Bloods.
Under state law, he had committed no crime.
But an Omaha ordinance that prohibits transporting loaded rifles allowed police to take a known gang member off the streets, at least temporarily.
It’s the kind of situation that explains why the Omaha Police Officers Association opposes a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would force cities, villages and counties to repeal their local gun ordinances in favor of less-restrictive state gun regulations.
Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt also testified against the measure Friday during a three-hour public hearing before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Legislative Bill 68 has been identified as the top priority of firearms organizations and many gun owners, who say the assortment of regulations in Omaha and Lincoln is confusing and too easy to violate.
In the past, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert testified in support of a similar version of the bill, saying she doubts the local restrictions reduce gun violence. The mayor did not appear at Friday’s hearing, but said in an email that her position on the issue has not changed.
Heath Mello, who is running for mayor against Stothert, led the fight against the similar bill last year when he was in the Legislature. That bill came within a single vote of breaking a filibuster.
Friday’s hearing drew passionate testimony from people on both sides of the gun divide.
State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, a committee member who sponsored the bill, said Friday that he believes the local codes infringe upon gun rights in both the Nebraska and U.S. Constitutions. Nebraska is one of six states where state gun laws do not pre-empt municipal codes.
Because many gun owners from rural Nebraska are unaware of the tougher restrictions, they can unknowingly commit violations while transporting guns into Omaha’s city limits, Hilgers said.
Gun rights advocates particularly dislike an Omaha ordinance that requires handgun owners to register their firearms. They also oppose ordinances that allow local authorities to deny handgun ownership to anyone convicted of certain misdemeanor offenses or possession of a small amount of marijuana, an infraction.
Hilgers said he has reviewed multiple research papers and has yet to find a correlation between handgun registries and lower rates of gun violence. Lawmakers should not allow a constitutional right to be impeded without clear and compelling justification, he added.
“We have the right to bear arms. We have the right to own guns. That’s not the question before us,” he told his fellow committee members.
Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner testified in support of the bill, saying it would help resolve ambiguity that exists between ordinances in different jurisdictions. He added, however, that he would like to see an amendment to prevent firearms from being brought into courthouses or other county offices.
Patricia Harrold of Papillion, a member of the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association, said she inadvertently violated one of Omaha’s gun ordinances while teaching a class that instructs women how to shoot. As a Defense Department contractor with a security clearance, she was required to self report the violation to her employer. Although it did not cost her the job, she said she feared it could have.
Many opponents accused supporters of the measure of doing the bidding of the National Rifle Association, which backs the bill. They also argued that it would be wrong for the state to usurp the ability of local elected officials to adopt gun regulations intended to make their communities safer.
Opponents also were concerned about a provision of the bill that would allow gun owners and their organizations to sue cities that continued to enforce local ordinances after the law was adopted. That’s one reason the League of Nebraska Municipalities opposed the measure.
Omaha Police Sgt. Aaron Hanson, testifying on behalf of the police union, said the ordinances give authorities another tool to combat gun violence. In addition to the registry, he said officers highly value a rule that prohibits people under 21 from possessing a handgun in Omaha. (State law sets the minimum age at 18.)
It’s one thing to allow a farmer to keep a loaded rifle in his pickup to shoot coyotes, but police don’t want to allow armed teenagers to legally cruise through Omaha, Hanson added.
“The transportation of a loaded handgun might not raise an eyebrow in Albion, Nebraska, which hasn’t experienced a homicide in almost 20 years,” Hanson said. “But it could raise a huge red flag for an Omaha police officer giving special attention to a west Omaha bar parking lot with a history of gang violence.”
Gun control advocates at the hearing also were critical of Hilgers for introducing the measure after accepting a $1,000 campaign contribution from the NRA’s political action committee.
After the hearing, Hilgers said he has long been a supporter of the Second Amendment and decided he wanted to introduce the bill last year, well before he won his legislative seat.
The committee took no action on the bill Friday.