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State_and_regional
Gun control bills stall in Nebraska Legislature as about 400 gun rights advocates fill Capitol

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.

Photos: The Nebraska State Capitol through the years

State_and_regional
Nebraska state senators target treasurer's TV ads, no-bid contracts during legislative hearing

LINCOLN — Two state senators made State Treasurer John Murante the poster boy for a pair of bills given a public hearing Friday.

Murante did not show up to testify on either measure before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. But reached later, he said he would “be happy to comply with whatever rules the Legislature imposes on constitutional officers.”

Sens. Megan Hunt of Omaha and Matt Hansen of Lincoln cited a December World-Herald story about the treasurer’s actions during his first year in office as the inspiration for their legislation.

The story revealed that Murante had spent almost $600,000 on public service ads that prominently featured him and his family. To produce the ads, he hired a company for which he used to work.

Bids were not sought for the advertisement contract, but the office space was selected through a bidding process.

John Murante

The story also detailed how Murante had signed a 10-year lease on office space in west Omaha. Although he said the satellite office was part of his public outreach, the $58,700-a-year space was virtually unknown to the public.

Hunt’s proposal, Legislative Bill 981, would make constitutional officers and constitutionally created agencies subject to the same competitive bidding requirements that apply to other state agencies.

The bill would require constitutional officers such as the treasurer and governor to seek bids on contracts costing $50,000 or more.

Hansen’s LB 982 would extend a ban on state-funded advertisements that mention the names of top state elected officials.

Current law bars such ads by the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general and state auditor during the years when those officers are up for election. LB 982 would prohibit such ads at any time.

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The bill would still allow state-funded advertisements promoting public awareness of programs and services, such as the unclaimed property division of the Treasurer’s Office or the consumer protection division of the Attorney General’s Office. Constitutional officers could also run campaign ads paid for by their campaign accounts.

Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska spoke in support of both bills.

Common Cause previously filed a complaint against Murante with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. The complaint alleged that Murante failed to disclose his conflict of interest with Victory Enterprises, the Davenport, Iowa, company he hired to produce the advertisements.

Murante has said he ended his work for the company before being elected in 2018, and before he hired the company in June to produce and place the television ads.

The office space went through a bidding process. An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the situation.


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U.S.-Taliban truce takes effect, paving ay for peace deal
Signing of peace accord by two sides Feb. 29 would follow weeklong 'reduction in violence' agreement

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A temporary truce between the United States and the Taliban took effect on Friday, setting the stage for the two sides to sign a peace deal next week aimed at ending 18 years of war in Afghanistan and bringing U.S. troops home.

If successfully implemented, the weeklong "reduction in violence" agreement, which came into force at midnight Friday local time, will be followed by the signing of the peace accord Feb. 29, wrapping up America's longest-running conflict and fulfilling one of President Donald Trump's main campaign promises.

Friday's announcement of an agreement on terms for a peace deal follows months of negotiations between the two sides that have broken down before. Yet both parties have signaled a desire to halt the fighting that began with the U.S. invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan-based al-Qaida network.

Should the truce stand, the U.S.-Taliban deal would be followed within 10 days by the start of all-Afghan peace talks that could result in the formation of a new government in Kabul, a pledge from the Taliban not to allow terrorist groups to operate in the country, and the phased withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops over 18 months.

The plan is a gamble for Trump, who retweeted several news accounts of the agreement. If it's successful, he will be able to claim to have taken a first step toward meeting his 2016 campaign pledge to bring American troops home. But if it fails, Trump could be painted by his Democratic adversaries in an election year as willing to sacrifice the security of U.S. soldiers and American interests for the sake of political expediency.

For the Taliban, the successful completion of the truce and Afghanistan peace talks would give the group a shot at international legitimacy, which it lacked at the time it ran the country and gave bin Laden and his associates safe haven.

The truce, to be monitored by American forces, will likely be fragile and U.S. officials have noted the possibility that "spoilers" uninterested in peace talks could disrupt it. Determining who is responsible for potential attacks during the seven days will therefore be critical.

Both sides were cautiously optimistic in announcing the agreement that had been previewed a week ago by a senior U.S. official at an international security conference in Munich, Germany. The announcement had been expected shortly thereafter but was delayed in part because of Monday's release of the results of Afghanistan's disputed September 2019 elections that showed President Ashraf Ghani winning by an extremely narrow margin.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the peace agreement, to be signed in Doha, Qatar, by U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives, will eventually lead to a permanent cease-fire. The deal also envisions guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not be used to attack the U.S. or its allies.

"We are preparing for the signing to take place on February 29," Pompeo said. "Intra-Afghan negotiations will start soon thereafter."

The Taliban, meanwhile, said in a statement that the agreement is intended to achieve nationwide peace and end the foreign troop presence in the country.

The statement said both sides "will now create a suitable security situation" ahead of the agreement signing date, invite international representatives to a signing ceremony, arrange for the release of prisoners, structure a path for peace talks "and finally lay the groundwork for peace across the country with the withdrawal of all foreign forces."

The Taliban added that they will not allow "the land of Afghanistan to be used against security of others so that our people can live a peaceful and prosperous life under the shade of an Islamic system."

But the road ahead is fraught with difficulties, particularly as some Taliban elements and other groups have shown little interest in negotiations. An attack that killed two Americans last September disrupted what at the time was an expected announcement of a peace deal.

And, it remained unclear who would represent Kabul at the intra-Afghan talks. Ghani's rivals have disputed the Afghan election commission's declaration that he won the presidential election.

The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani's government and also denounced the election results, saying they will talk to government representatives but only as ordinary Afghans, not as officials. Germany and Norway have both offered to host the all-Afghan talks, but no venue has yet been set.

Pompeo did not say who would represent Kabul, only that talks "will build on this fundamental step to deliver a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire and the future political road map for Afghanistan."

Under the terms of the "reduction in violence" — which covers all of Afghanistan and also applies to Afghan forces as well as the United States and Taliban — all sides have committed to end attacks for seven days. For the Taliban, that includes roadside bombings, suicide attacks and rocket strikes.

The Taliban military commission issued instructions to its commanders "to stop attacks from Feb. 22 against foreign and Afghan forces until Feb 29."

The peace deal also calls for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, most of whom are being held by the Afghan government. Although the U.S. has already discussed the prisoner release with government representatives, there has been no public announcement about it from Ghani's government.

Neighboring Pakistan, which has long been accused of backing the Taliban, welcomed the reduction in violence plan.

"We hope the Afghan parties would now seize this historic opportunity and work out a comprehensive and inclusive political settlement for durable peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region," said a Pakistan Foreign Ministry statement. Pakistan hosts more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees.

During any withdrawal, the U.S. would retain the right to continue counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, which have been focused mainly on an Islamic State group's affiliate and al-Qaida, according to Pentagon officials.

Ghani said in a statement that "for the week of Taliban's reduction in violence, our defense and security forces will remain in defensive mode" and continue operations against the Islamic State, al-Qaida "and other terrorist groups except Taliban."

The Pentagon has declined to say whether the U.S. had agreed to cut its troop levels in Afghanistan to zero. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said if the truce is successful and the Afghan peace talks begin, the U.S. would reduce its troop contingent "over time" to about 8,600. There are more than 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Yet Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha, tweeted that the Taliban expect a complete withdrawal. In a Pashto language tweet, he said, "based on the agreement with the U.S., all international forces will leave Afghanistan and the invasion will end and no one will be allowed to use Afghan soil against others."

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the developments. The U.S.-led military alliance has about 16,000 troops in Afghanistan helping train the country's security forces, but it could draw down on its operation to accommodate any firm peace agreement. More than 8,000 of these alliance troops are American.

"This is a critical test of the Taliban's willingness and ability to reduce violence, and contribute to peace in good faith," Stoltenberg said in a statement. "This could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans, sustainable peace, and ensuring the country is never again a safe haven for terrorists."


State_and_regional
DOJ sues Nebraska village, says it violated federal law when it denied church a building permit

A small Christian church in a fight with the Village Board of tiny Walthill, Nebraska, has picked up a powerful ally — the United States of America.

Light of the World Gospel Ministries wants to build a church in the Main Street business district of Walthill, a village of just under 800 people that’s within the Omaha Indian Reservation in northeast Nebraska.

The congregation has been locked in a battle with the board and the village’s planning commission for more than five years. The congregation filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the village was violating the U.S. Constitution and a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Congress passed the law 20 years ago to keep local governments from using zoning ordinances to discriminate against religious organizations.

The federal government jumped into the small-town Nebraska fray Thursday. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the Village of Walthill in federal court in Omaha. The government, siding with the congregation, alleges that the village’s policies and its leaders’ denial of a church building permit and other actions have violated federal law.

The congregation has been in Walthill since 2007 and says in court documents that about 200 people attend services. Its leaders say it has outgrown the former funeral home where services are held.

The federal act that the Walthill congregation is invoking has been applied frequently across the nation in disputes over construction or expansion of churches, mosques, synagogues and related services.

It’s relatively rare for the DOJ to file a lawsuit in those cases, said Daniel Dalton, a Michigan attorney who specializes in religious land-use cases.

But the Walthill case is typical of those in which the DOJ does intervene, Dalton said.

“When they do file suit, it’s when there’s a really strong case,” he said. “... You never want to be on the other side of the v. from the United States.”

Dalton said the Walthill situation follows a pattern, often involving small towns or suburbs, in which there’s “a really defective zoning ordinance that violates federal law and a defective approval process that violates federal law.”

He said the DOJ has pursued enforcement of the act differently under different presidential administrations. Some people thought that the Trump administration would have a more singular focus on cases involving Christian organizations. But that has not been the case, Dalton said.

The government’s focus has been more on the strength of the case than on the religion involved, he said.

Walthill Village Board members could not be reached for comment Friday.

A person who answered the phone at the village office referred questions to its attorney, Jason Grams in Omaha.

“Walthill does not comment on pending litigation,” Grams said.

In court filings, the village’s lawyers contended that the village has not violated the federal land use law and that it was furthering the compelling government interest of public health and safety through its zoning policies and practices.

The Walthill case dates back to 2013. The church bought several lots across the street from its meeting hall for an expanded building. At that time, the Village Board approved the permits needed for the church, but then revoked them in June 2014.

Board members said the commercial area of Main Street should be reserved for businesses.

At a 2014 meeting, four people from Walthill testified that some of the church’s proselytizing had been offensive to Native Americans.

The church has denied that. The residents’ testimony, and the Village Board’s reaction to it, is part of the court case.

On Friday, Sherry Moniz, one of the four who testified, said someone had brought to the meeting a recording of a Light of the World Gospel Ministries leader saying racist things about Native Americans.

Church officials have denied making such comments. They could not be reached for comment Friday.

Moniz said she’s not against the church, although she thinks that with six or seven churches, Walthill “has enough churches already.” But she said she is against using Main Street business district property for it.

“We’re already a poor county, and for them to think that it’s OK for them to file a lawsuit because they’re not getting their way to be on Main Street, I don’t understand,” Moniz said. “Build it off of Main Street.”

According to the federal lawsuit, the village’s actions placed an undue burden on the church and resulted in the congregation being treated unfairly compared with other groups in Walthill.

The lawsuit notes that other entities have been allowed to build structures in the business district. Since revoking the congregation’s special building permit in 2014, the Village Board has approved the relocation of the library to Main Street and construction of a clinic on Main Street, the lawsuit notes.

According to a 2018 lawsuit by the church, some village leaders have said they want to reserve Main Street for industrial redevelopment by the Omaha Tribe.

Court documents indicate that the majority of the Village Board were members of the Omaha Tribe at the time the board revoked the church’s permit.

Additionally, according to court documents, at least one Village Board member has expressed concern about a church, which doesn’t pay taxes, occupying space in a commercial district that could be used by a taxpaying entity. The board member has expressed a preference for the church to build in a residential area.

The issue has been simmering for several years, and relations between the community and congregation have been tense. Church members have alleged that bricks have been thrown at them and, on at least one occasion, that a congregant’s tires were slashed.

In 2018, First Liberty Institute, a national law firm specializing in religious freedom, helped the church file its federal lawsuit against Walthill. That suit is pending. Roger Byron, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, welcomed the DOJ’s intervention.

“It’s time for Village of Walthill officials to reverse their unlawful decisions that keep our client from revitalizing a run-down part of Main Street,” he said.