Gun debate continues; licenses for Ukrainians look poised to move ahead

March 2, 2023, midnight ·

Senator Terrell McKinney in debate Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Terrell McKinney in debate Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

Debate over loosening gun laws continued in the Legislature Thursday, with some senators saying easing gun restrictions could help fight racial discrimination. And a proposal to give Ukrainians who fled the war permission to drive in Nebraska appears poised to move ahead.

On the second day of debate on a proposal to allow carrying concealed weapons without a permit, discussion took on a racial dimension. Lincoln Sen. Jane Raybould, opposing the bill, LB77, complained it would preempt local gun-regulation ordinances. She quoted Lincoln Police Chief Teresa Ewins.

“LB77 would negate existing laws that we have in the city of Lincoln in the city of Omaha in regards to firearms, and that's probably why Chief Ewins said opposing LB77 isn't about denying rights. It's about maintaining already established precautions,” Raybould said.

But Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, who says he likes parts of the bill, said police use that city’s gun registration requirements to add on, or “bump up” charges against black and brown young people in the city. Wayne, who’s biracial, contrasted that treatment with what happens to youth in largely white suburbs or rural areas.

“They’re not talking about bumping up kids in Bennington. They're not talking about bumping up kids in western Nebraska. They're talking about bumping up minority kids in Omaha,” Wayne said.

And Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, who’s black, told his mostly white colleagues that the difference in how people are treated inclines him to support the bill.

“You've never been stopped by the police and they pull you and your friends out of your car and embarrass you, and the only thing they’re looking for is a gun, and (then) they tell you to go. None of y'all had to live through that trauma. So when you asked me ‘Why are you thinking about voting for this, or why are you supporting this?’ that's why,” McKinney said.

Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said the bill has strong support in his largely rural district.

“I have not heard from a single law enforcement officer or police chief or sheriff in my district who has any reservations about this bill. And I've heard from a lot of constituents in my district, probably 95% of whom are completely in favor of LB77. There's not a unified position from law enforcement on this. But from my perspective in rural central Nebraska, this bill is overwhelmingly popular and a top issue for the people,” Briese said.

Sen. Jen Day of Omaha said she voted for a similar bill on first round last year, but changed her mind after doing an informal poll and finding her constituents were heavily against it. Day said easing restrictions on guns would make schools more dangerous for her 10 and 14 year old boys.

“I cannot stand here knowing that in the United States, we have a very unique problem of children dying from firearm deaths, and continue to support legislation that will only exacerbate the problem. I don't want my kids to die at school. My kids go to school to learn,” Day said.

But Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte said the solution for school shootings was not to control guns, but to “harden the target” by making schools more difficult to attack. Jacobson, a banker, says he even opposes existing law that prohibits bringing concealed weapons into banks.

“If you come in to the bank and you're concealed carrying and you’re a criminal, you're going to be wondering if somebody else is going to pull the gun and take you down. Same thing would happen to schools. Why do these cowards go to schools? Why do they go to soft targets? Because they're soft targets,” Jacobson said.

As senators prepared to adjourn for the day without reaching a vote on the bill, Speaker John Arch called on Wayne to finish the remainder of another senator’s speaking time. Wayne used that to inject a note of humor into the proceedings.

“Senator Wayne, 20 seconds,” Arch said.

“Thank you, Mr. President. This will be a good 15 seconds just to reflect on what we’ve done today,” Wayne deadpanned, then stood silent as his listeners laughed.

Soon afterwards, the Legislature adjourned. Senators are expected to hold a first-round vote on the bill Friday.

Meanwhile, a proposal to authorize driver’s licenses for Ukrainians who fled the war in their country and are now living in Nebraska appears headed for approval. Currently, Ukrainians who are here as humanitarian parolees can work, but they can’t drive. Director of Motor Vehicles Rhonda Lamm has been working with Sen. Tom Brewer to address the problem. Lamm says the proposal they’re working on would let her department issue driving permits that don’t conform to federal “REAL ID” requirements.

“A noncompliant REAL ID document cannot be used for any federal purposes. So in other words, to enter a federal building, enter a military base, fly on a commercial aircraft, there's other restrictions as well, but it cannot be used for federal purposes. And the document has to be marked that way,” Lamm said.

The proposal is contained in an amendment to a bill that is one of only a few proposals that have cleared the first round of voting in a session so-far characterized by inaction. Gov. Jim Pillen says he’s behind it “one hundred percent.”

The amendment would allow people to apply by November 1, but Lamm says her department wants to make licenses available sooner.

“We understand the importance of it. We understand that we have people wanting to work, and we want to try to help them get that way. And our intentions are that as soon as we can get our get the work done, and our vendor can get it done and tested, that we intend to start issuing them, and hopefully that's before November 1,” she said.

Lamm said Ukrainians would be the primary beneficiaries, but other groups of humanitarian parolees, like Haitians, would also be eligible.