LINCOLN — The hot-button debate of gun control versus gun rights brought a huge crowd — including at least two people openly carrying semi-automatic rifles — to the State Capitol on Friday.
An estimated 400 gun rights advocates, many wearing gray T-shirts proclaiming “We the People Shall Not be Infringed,” crowded the hallways and two legislative hearing rooms. They vastly outnumbered the fewer than a dozen gun control advocates, many of whom wore red T-shirts reading “Guns Kill Kids, Gun Control Now.”
The subjects of public hearings Friday were bills that sought to protect victims of sexual violence and harassment from gun violence, and another to prevent suicides using firearms.
But opponents were also there to protest another measure proposed this session — a “red flag” law that would allow judges to order, after a hearing, that guns be taken from people deemed unstable or dangerous.
What was clear after Friday’s public hearings is that nothing will be done this year on gun control legislation. In the end, none of the three bills was prioritized by Friday’s deadline, meaning they won’t advance this year.
Brett Hendrix, a 28-year-old former Marine from Omaha, came to the hearings — and later testified — holding a black AR-15 rifle, and wearing a camouflage helmet and flak jacket.
“I’m here because no rights in the Second Amendment need to be abridged,” Hendrix said.
But gun control advocates said something needs to be done to keep guns away from people contemplating suicide or harm to others.
“I don’t want Nebraska to be a state that doesn’t do anything, regardless of how many people are against it,” said Shirley Niemeyer of Ashland.
There was an increased presence of law enforcement during the afternoon, and state troopers accompanied some state senators as they made their way through the hallways. Earlier in the week, Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who proposed the red flag law, reported on social media that he had received a death threat.
Capitol security officials said there is no ban on openly carrying a firearm in the State Capitol. But, because there are two courtrooms in the building, concealed carry of guns is banned by state law. Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who chaired the hearings Friday, said he wants the Legislature’s Executive Board to review the policy that allows open carry of guns in the Capitol.
The show of force Friday by gun rights advocates comes as two counties in the Panhandle — Cheyenne and Morrill Counties — have, in recent days, adopted resolutions in support of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Similar resolutions, which are nonbinding, have been adopted by four states, including Kansas and Wyoming, as well as counties in at least 20 states to protest gun control legislation, and particularly red flag laws.
But Friday also saw the release of a poll conducted on behalf of the Nebraska chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The poll, they said, showed that 80% of voters support “extreme risk” legislation — like the red flag proposal.
State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, who introduced Legislative Bill 816, said he plans to work with gun rights groups to introduce a suicide prevention bill next year that they can support.
“I didn’t hear anyone today say that suicide wasn’t a problem,” McCollister said. His bill would have required at least a 48-hour waiting period before buying a handgun and would ask gun dealers to distribute information on suicide prevention and firearm safety.
He said he would likely seek to include aspects of a second bill heard on Friday, LB 958 by Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha. It would have prohibited possession or purchase of firearms by people convicted of domestic violence or subject to a current or final protection order for sexual violence or harassment.
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Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a leading gun rights legislator, said he’s willing to work with Morfeld, McCollister and other senators on suicide prevention. But he, like many testifiers on Friday, said such proposals should leave gun rights alone.
A west Lincoln gun shop owner, Teri Clark, said the answer to head off suicide attempts is not restrictions on gun access, but more public education. Clark, a member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, said that group has already produced a couple of public service announcements to promote awareness.
The hearing did feature a dust-up over one of the testifiers, David Pringle, an east Lincoln gun shop employee.
In 2018, the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association changed the location of its meeting from Pringle’s shop after learning that he had been identified as a member of a white supremacist group. Gun control supporters read an article about that during Friday’s hearing, which prompted a gun rights backer to interrupt, asking if that was relevant to the hearing.
Later, Sen. Julie Slama of Peru asked Pringle if he wanted to respond to the story.
Pringle said he knew David Duke, a former Klu Klux Klan leader, and added, “I love my race more than any other race.”
After the hearing, Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha issued a press release condemning Pringle for his statement and for voicing a white supremacist slogan called “The 14 Words” during his testimony.
But Saturday night, Hunt tweeted that she had been mistaken. She included a transcript of what Pringle said, and it did not include the slogan.
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