LINCOLN — Two firearms organizations took aim Wednesday at the first gun-related bill to come up for a public hearing this year in the Nebraska Legislature.
A proposal heard by the Judiciary Committee would allow lawsuits against gun owners if they fail to reasonably store firearms later used by juveniles or people with mental illness.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who introduced Legislative Bill 50, said he's trying to prevent shootings like those at the Von Maur department store and Millard South High School.
“We are asking that they make certain they are keeping these guns secure while in the home,” he said, “to help prevent some of the catastrophic events we've seen in Nebraska and also around the country.”
Ron Jensen, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said lawyers he consulted with consider the bill vague, particularly because it fails to define “reasonable” gun storage. What, specifically, does a gun owner have to do to meet such a standard? he asked.
He suggested a better way might be to give gun owners an incentive to securely store their firearms. Shield them from lawsuits, for example, if a juvenile or mentally ill person breaks into a locked safe and steals a gun. Such an approach could encourage better gun storage than using punishment.
Bryan Van Deun, representing the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association, asked whether using a trigger lock would constitute reasonable storage. How about a locked bedroom in a home where no children reside?
Van Deun posed a scenario in which a child of a firearm owner used a gun to shoot an intruder. Would the intruder or his family be able to sue the gun owner?
The bill essentially makes it easier for lawyers to file potentially frivolous lawsuits against firearms owners, Van Deun said.
Two gun owners also testified against the bill. No one testified in support.
The committee also conducted a hearing on another gun-related proposal sponsored by Ashford. LB 148 would make it a crime for convicted felons to possess ammunition, treating bullets as the law currently treats firearms.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine testified in favor, saying it would give Omaha police another tool to combat gang shootings.
“With gun violence the way it has been, this is an important law,” he said.
Federal law makes possession of ammunition by felons a crime, but federal prosecutors don't file the charge as much as a county prosecutor would, Kleine said.
Jerry Soucie, a defense lawyer in Lincoln, opposed the bill. Soucie predicted the offense would be prosecuted mostly in urban areas of Nebraska and disproportionately against young African-Americans. He said rogue police could use such a law to frame the innocent.
The bill also would make it illegal to sell or give ammunition to minors, but it makes exceptions for juveniles who are hunting or target shooting under the supervision of a family member.
The hearings were just the first for gun-related legislation this session.
Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont introduced Legislative Bill 451 this week to prevent any new federal firearms restrictions from being enforced in Nebraska.
Specifically, the bill says federal laws or rules enacted after Jan. 1 that impose new restrictions, registration requirements or bans on high-capacity magazines can't be enforced in the state.
Janssen said his proposal raises a constitutional question about states' rights and the authority of the federal government to enforce gun laws.
But he said other states have passed their own laws on such issues as immigration and marijuana use, neither of which is as fundamental as the Second Amendment.
“We're talking about the constitutional right to bear arms,” he said.
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