LINCOLN — For the second time this session, a legislative committee shot down a proposal to ban the public release of the names and addresses of Nebraskans who obtain state permits to buy handguns.
Such bans have become a top priority for the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups. A newspaper in upstate New York published a list of local gun owners in the wake of the shooting rampage at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, sparking a debate about privacy rights versus public disclosure.
The Legislature's Judiciary Committee took a second vote Thursday on advancing an amended version of the gun-records bill, after an earlier vote ended in a 4-4 deadlock.
The vote Thursday was 4-2 to advance the bill, with two lawmakers not voting. Five votes were needed to move the bill.
Legislative Bill 293, introduced by State Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, a gun-rights advocate, had come under fire from news media groups. They argued that the public has a right to know who is obtaining gun permits and whether sheriff's offices and police departments are issuing the permits appropriately.
During a public hearing on the bill, a representative of Media of Nebraska said there have been no complaints about the permits being part of public records since the law passed 20 years ago.
Under the law, Nebraskans must obtain a $5 state permit, through a local sheriff's office or police department, before they can buy a handgun. Applicants undergo a background check for past criminal offenses and mental health commitments.
Records of such permit holders are considered public, unlike the records of concealed handgun permits. City of Omaha handgun registration records also are public records. Kintner's bill would make all such gun records confidential.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he tries to seek consensus within his committee and help lawmakers get their priority bills advanced for debate by the full Legislature.
In that spirit, Ashford said, he drafted an amendment to the bill to allow access by the news media and mental health practitioners on a “case-by-case” basis.
If the press provided a name, the state could check whether the person had a permit, Ashford said. That would prevent the wholesale release of the names of all handgun permit holders, he said, but satisfy the news media's need to check specific cases.
Sens. Colby Coash of Lincoln, Mark Christensen of Imperial, Al Davis of Hyannis and Les Seiler of Hastings voted “yes.” Sens. Ernie Chambers of Omaha and Amanda McGill of Lincoln voted “no.”
Ashford was registered as present but not voting. Even though he brought the amendment to help advance the bill, he said that doesn't mean he has to vote “yes.”
The eighth member of the committee, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, did not vote. Lathrop said he was busy on other legislation and did not know the content of the amendment.
Kintner, reached later Thursday, said he had not been briefed on the Judiciary Committee's vote but would keep trying to get the bill out of committee. “I'm like a bulldog on a pork chop. I'm not going away,” he said.
Kintner said he doesn't intend to block traditional news media from doing their jobs, but he is worried that Internet sites could publish lists of gun owners.
“It's not a gun issue, it's a privacy issue,” he said. “If you're a criminal, (publishing a list) pretty much tells you who the unarmed are.” Such a list also would locate handguns for people seeking to steal them, Kintner said.
Ron Jensen, Nebraska lobbyist for the NRA, said 37 to 38 states have passed laws to ban the release of such information, and Nebraska should, too.
In Nebraska, records of firearm registrations, required in the City of Omaha, are public. State concealed handgun permits are confidential.
Coash said state law should be consistent and the need for privacy and public safety outweighs the public's right to know.
Ashford said he will work with Kintner over the summer to expand the scope of the bill. The cost of a state handgun permit should be increased, Ashford said, and the issue of public access to those records should be studied. If public access is allowed for handgun permits, he said, it ought to be allowed for concealed-carry permits as well.
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