Getting permission to buy a gun in Omaha took 15 minutes and $5.
I did have to drive to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s west Omaha headquarters.
I did have to produce my Nebraska driver’s license and fill out a one-page form that asked for basic information like my address, Social Security number and date of birth. I had to answer yes or no to a dozen questions about topics like my U.S. citizenship (yes), dishonorable discharge (no), felony history (no), commitment to a mental institution (no).
No one asked why I wanted a gun. No one asked if I was a victim of a crime or felt vulnerable. No one asked about my current mental state, probing about therapy, medication or whether I was feeling blue or angry or impulsive, though near the counter were brochures on suicide. No one asked if I was afraid.
After running my name through a federal database, the clerk handed me a tiny piece of paper stamped “Firearm Purchase Certificate,” which is valid for three years.
But I only needed that to buy a handgun in Nebraska. The state requires permits for handguns but does not require law enforcement permission for buying the mother of all guns, the kind of semi-automatic weapons designed to fire off dozens of rounds in a minute. The kind used in El Paso or Dayton or other places that have had mass shootings.
I then headed to the mall.
* * *
There are many ways to legally and easily buy a gun in America. Online and in parts, the way the Dayton mass shooter apparently did. At gun shows where in certain cases you can skip the whole background check process, and save the $5 permit. And the old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar way, where you walk into a local store and walk out with, say, an AR-style semi-automatic rifle that can hold 30-round ammunition clips or be outfitted with 100-round magazine drums, such as the kind the Dayton mass shooter had.
Outside of nine states and the District of Columbia, where large-capacity magazines are banned, this is all perfectly legal. And relatively easy. Why could a young man in Dayton kill nine people and injure 27 in less than one minute? Why could a young man in El Paso kill 22 people and injure 24 relatively quickly? Because both had high-powered, high-capacity weapons they obtained legally.
Gun control proponents see the mass casualties as reasons to push for restrictions on guns. Opponents see those tragic events as reasons to keep guns as easily accessible as possible. How else to stop the bad guys?
As someone who doesn’t own a gun and did not grow up around guns, the back-to-back massacres committed last weekend with legal weapons made me wonder: How easy is it to get a gun in Nebraska?
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* * *
My shopping lately has been all back-to-school. Socks and underwear. Notebooks and erasable pens. Shoes, which for a soon-to-be eighth-grader, are almost impossible to get right. None requires a sheriff’s permission.
As with shoes, there are many places in Omaha to go buy a gun legally. As with shoes, I wanted to go somewhere familiar, somewhere with a good selection and customer service. I started at Cabela’s. The La Vista store was advertising Ruger semi-automatic handguns for $279.97.
Nebraska is a “shall-issue” state. If you meet the state’s criteria, which is based on federal law, you can buy a gun. I am not a felon, fugitive or addict. I’m not an illegal immigrant nor under indictment or the subject of a domestic violence protection order. I’ve not been ruled by a court to be “mentally defective.” Ergo, I meet the criteria.
But to get that Cabela’s Ruger, I needed that purchase permit offered only at county sheriff’s offices or local police departments under Nebraska law.
Nebraska’s handgun permit law was passed in 1991, before mass shootings became a regular part of our national experience. Former Nebraska State Sen. Brad Ashford, who pushed to get the permit law passed, said he couldn’t get his colleagues to include assault weapons then. Nor could he years later, after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2004 expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons.
“I don’t know how many times we tried to include military-style assault weapons in the permit law,” he said. “But there was no support for it. Massive opposition.”
Besides getting the purchase permit, the City of Omaha also requires handgun owners to register their weapons with the Police Department and charges $15. Some gun sellers won’t release the newly purchased handguns until that happens. But the city’s ordinance doesn’t cover semi-automatic weapons and other types of guns.
The Cabela’s clerks were friendly and patient. They told me that without the sheriff’s permit I couldn’t buy a handgun but could buy any other type of gun if I passed a federal background check at point of sale. As a licensed firearms dealer, the store is required under federal law to do this.
* * *
There are an estimated 393 million guns in America, more than enough to put a gun in the hands of every American with millions of guns left over. But those guns are hardly distributed evenly. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, fewer than half of American households reported having guns. This contributes to a cultural divide about gun ownership.
If, like me, you’re not a gun owner, the prospect of having and keeping a gun at home is foreign, and America’s deep gun culture is, too. If you’re going to a place like Cabela’s for kayaks or shoes, it’s easy to ignore the gun department.
If, however, you are a gun owner like Dick Clark, a Lincoln lawyer and strident gun-rights defender who consults on church security, then the gun section at a Cabela’s feels like home. You may own guns for self-defense or hunting or fun. It’s familiar.
It’s why Clark does not believe in more gun regulation. He also thinks stores, churches and schools that ban guns have “a duty of care” to provide for the safety of people who go there, because those people aren’t given permission to defend themselves.
Clark views guns the way he does fire extinguishers: tools you want around just in case. It’s why he doesn’t blink at the availability of high-capacity magazines.
“Defenders need options,” he said. “More rounds in a magazine mean more options.”
Gun control advocates and opponents agree the nation is awash in guns. That fact is why someone like Clark thinks there should be less regulation: If the guns are out there, then you need to protect yourself.
* * *
Inside the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office was a lobby table littered with $5 gun permit receipts. The Sheriff’s Office issues between 15 and 35 permits a day — 4,740 in all last year.
I told the clerk behind a thick glass window what I wanted and handed him my driver’s license.
He handed me a background check form, which took almost no time to fill out.
As I waited, I flipped through brochures. One was on suicide, which is especially a risk for military veterans who are twice as likely as nonveterans to die this way. One was on child safety, noting that 300 children a year shoot themselves or someone else and about 1.7 million American children live in homes with guns that are loaded and unsecured.
The third was on Nebraska firearm information. If I would have gotten a handgun from “a close relative” defined as spouse, sibling, parent, child, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew or grandparent, then I would not need to have even come here. No purchase permit required when guns are transferred in families.
In just under 15 minutes, I passed the sheriff’s test and had my purchase permit in hand.
* * *
My family had been at Village Pointe on Sunday for shoe shopping for the aforementioned 13-year-old, who, in two weeks of searching, had yet to find her holy grail of sneakers. At Scheel’s then, we were tired, frustrated and spent.
Would gun shopping be easier?
I breezed up the escalator, past the Ferris wheel, past the coffee shop, past the home decor section, past toys with golf-ball-sized bubble gum and right into a place I’d never spent time in before: the gun department.
Guns were beautifully displayed under glass and locked in cages. I did a double-take on some semi-automatic rifles imprinted with these words: Let It Rain!
I showed my newly obtained Douglas County permit and said, truthfully, that I didn’t think I was going to buy a weapon right now, that I didn’t want one in my house because I have children but that I was interested in the AR-type of semi-automatic rifles. A source had just told me how his dad takes such a weapon into the woods to shoot for fun. Perhaps something like that?
The clerk was attentive, knowledgeable and willing to tell me about guns without pushing one into my hands. He unlocked the cage of Rambo-looking weapons and showed me the difference between one that was good for shooting “varmints” at a distance and one that was good for “soft targets” like home intruders. He suggested training and practice at places where you can rent guns to try out. He said it was better to get the right gun than just any gun. He said there’s a lot of misinformation about guns and it’s best to learn.
I asked about return policy. It sounded too complicated if the weapon ever got fired.
I asked about magazine capacities. I was told 30 rounds is the standard but there are special orders.
I asked about background checks. Given the fact I had the sheriff’s handgun permit, I was told I could probably expect a 10- to 15-minute wait and be cleared. Then I’d pay for the gun and take it home.
Suddenly this seemed too real. Unlike buying a pair of back-to-school sneakers for a teenager, the prospect of pulling the trigger on buying a gun, even as an exercise to show how easy it was, carried too much responsibility.
It might be easy to get a gun. But I didn’t want one.