Judge to decide legality of Lincoln ban on weapons in parks, buildings

Feb. 26, 2024, 10:02 a.m. ·

Lawyer addressing judge in Firearm Owners v Lincoln in 2024
Jacob Huebert, lawyer for Nebraska Firearm Owners, addresses Judge Jacobsen during a hearing. (Photo: Bill Kelly/NE Public Media)

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A Lancaster County District Court Judge is reviewing whether the City of Lincoln can legally limit people from carrying guns in its parks and buildings.

The lawsuit is one of two filed by the Liberty Justice Center challenging firearm regulations in Nebraska’s two largest cities. At issue is whether the state legislature can force cities to adopt relaxed gun regulations.

District Court Judge Andrew Jacobsen heard arguments from the gun owners and the city on Tuesday.

In the view of the organization’s director, Jacob Huebert, in Nebraska, “all existing regulations of firearms from city governments are null and void, and they’re not allowed to pass new ones.”

In 2023, a majority of Nebraska legislators did not like the state’s two largest population centers restricting legally obtained guns. The law they passed, LB 77, prohibits cities and counties from regulating weapons while also removing any permitting requirements for carrying a concealed weapon.

In response, the mayors in Omaha and Lincoln signed executive orders stating the weapons bans in city-owned spaces were still in effect and enforceable.

Notice outside the Justice and Law Enforcement Center
A notice on the door of the Justice and Law Enforcement Center in Lincoln (Photo: Bill Kelly, NE Public Media)

Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers issued an opinion claiming “existing law prevents Nebraska municipalities from regulating the possession of firearms” in public spaces.

The Liberty Justice Center, on behalf of the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association, filed separate lawsuits against the cities in Douglas and Lancaster Counties.

During the hearing at the Lancaster County Justice Center, Huebert asked the judge to block the city from enforcing the mayor’s order immediately because it violates the very clear intent of the new state law, stating "the mayor's order and the parks weapons ordinance do exactly what LB 77 prohibits. They regulate the possession and the carrying of firearms."

In a previous interview with Nebraska Public Media, Huebert said the “lawsuits are not second amendment lawsuits.” The legal grounds being used to challenge the city’s rules don’t primarily focus on language in the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing a right to bear arms. Rather, the argument centers on which elected officials get to make the rules: the Nebraska State Legislature or mayor’s and city councils.

“The argument in both cases is the legislature said that local governments can't regulate firearms anymore,” Huebert said. “These local governments went ahead and did it anyway.”

In court documents, the gun owners claim they are being harmed because they prefer to remain armed in public and can no longer enjoy the city’s recreation areas.

Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and City attorney Yohance Christie would not be interviewed for this story. In a brief filed prior to the hearing, the city argues it has the right to regulate the buildings and parks it owns and controls.

Speaking for the city in court, Christie claimed the gun owners aren’t suffering any new inconvenience. Plus, by admitting in the court filings they’ve long ignored established rules limiting firearms, they’ve come to court with "dirty hands."

"This park ordinance has been in effect; I think when we looked it up, I think it went back to 1930," he told the Judge. "Yet they come in here today and say that they have routinely for years gone to parks and trails with guns, weapons, firearms, and now that they can't. The fact of the matter is that they never could."

The city asked the judge to throw out the entire case, claiming this was not a case of regulating firearms but of establishing rules for city parks and buildings, which is allowed under state law.

Judge Jacobson will review the arguments and issue his opinion on the motion at a later date.

Central to the legal battle is which level of government should be responsible for setting public safety rules.

Lincoln City Council and Public Building Commission member Sändra Washington believes “it is appropriate for the Public Building Commission to set a rule, which is really an expectation for how we expect people to interact when they are in the building.”

Washington preferred not to address the legal arguments the city raised in its response, leaving that to the city attorney but believes setting rules regulating when it’s appropriate to carry a concealed or visible firearm is “part of the oath that we take when we say we are coming to serve our community. We know that public health and safety is our highest priority.”

Attorney Huebert argued local governments should not determine what is in their best interest when setting firearms policy since “this is something where Nebraska's legislators decided that it is better to have a consistent statewide policy, and they don't want people to be insecure in that right. When they travel from one place to another within the state.”

The lawsuits directed at Omaha and Lincoln highlight a familiar divide over how to protect public safety and who should make the rules.

Melody Vaccaro, leader of the advocacy group Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, believes the “advantage to having local government (exercise their) authority is that different places have different problems.”

Ending limits on carrying guns into public spaces risks mass shootings, she argues, meaning the state senators who supported LB 77 “have taken away an important tool to save people's lives and improve public health outcomes.”

“I don't think that the senators thought it through when they passed this,” she said.

Patricia Harrold, with the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association, claims her “training and education have shown me that I'm at greater risk in public spaces, sidewalks, parks, trails, and large events.” As someone with a concealed carry permit, she wants “to have the chance to be able to defend myself and my family… in the event the unthinkable happens.”

Fears of additional gun violence, she claims, are unfounded.

“We're not going to have a rapid rise in crime by the law-abiding,” she said. “As a matter of fact, we will see a reduction in crime because the criminals won't know who's armed.”

A range of scientific studies refute the idea the availability of guns reduces violence.

Earlier this month, a Douglas County District Judge put a temporary hold on Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert’s order limiting guns in public places and other local rules governing firearms. Douglas County District Judge LeAnne Srb states the Mayor's order "threatens irreparable harm” to gun owners. A later hearing will argue whether the rules should be in place at all. The city has agreed to follow the judge’s order heading into a hearing to determine if the injunction should be made permanent.

Now comes the parallel case in Lancaster District Court, addressing many of the same issues in Lincoln.

Judge Andrew Jacobsen will hear each side argue whether state legislators have the legal standing to override city policy before deciding if the city of Lincoln can restrict guns.

Whether the two District Court judges support the challenge to the Executive Orders, the cases appear likely to be headed for review by the Nebraska Supreme Court to clarify whether state or local officials can determine public safety regulations.

Lincoln Mayor's Executive Order on Weapons
The executive order issued by Mayor Gaylor Baird banning weapons at city facilities.