After years of trying to pass a bill to allow people to carry concealed guns in Nebraska without a permit, conservative lawmakers are on the cusp of doing so, thanks in part to the defection of two Democratic Omaha senators — the only Black lawmakers in the body — who cited racial disparity in enforcing gun laws in their districts.
After three days of debate, lawmakers voted 36-12 Friday to advance the bill. It must survive two more rounds of debate to pass.
While the bill would not usurp the federal requirement for a background check to buy a gun, it would allow people to carry guns hidden in their clothing or vehicle without having to pay for a government permit or take a now-required gun safety course. It also would override stricter gun laws in the state’s cities, including in the state’s largest city of Omaha, which requires a conceal carry license for anyone carrying a gun in a car — even if the gun is in open view.
It's that Omaha law that spurred Omaha Sens. Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney to break party ranks and support the bill.
'How many young African American and Latino kinds are affected by Omaha’s gun laws?' asked Wayne on the Senate floor. Young Black people in Omaha are often charged with gun possession violations when a gun that's not theirs is found in a car they're riding in, Wayne said.
The practice, known in law enforcement circles as 'bumping up,' disproportionally affects people of color, he said.
'When they're talking about bumping up kids in Omaha, they're not talking about kids in Bennington,' Wayne said, referring to the overwhelmingly white bedroom community north of Omaha. 'They're not talking about kids in western Nebraska.'
McKinney said the creation of early gun control laws in the U.S. 'was out of fear of Black people.'
'I'm not going to sit here and not try to fight for my community,' he said. 'The police don't care about Black people.'
Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon — the bill's conservative sponsor who has tried since 2017 to pass it — backed McKinney's comments, citing colonial American laws that criminalized arming Native Americans. Brewer is an Oglala Lakota Tribe member and Nebraska's only Native American lawmaker.
Currently, 25 other states have so-called constitutional carry laws that allow people to carry concealed guns without a permit. Last month, the Republican-controlled South Carolina House voted to pass that state's own constitutional carry bill.
The Nebraska bill is opposed by the cities of Omaha and Lincoln, where the majority of gun violence occurs, and their police chiefs, who have said the measure will make their cities less safe.
Nebraska already allows gun owners to carry firearms in public view, as long as they don’t have a criminal record that bars them from possessing one and aren’t in a place — including churches, courthouses and private businesses — where guns are prohibited. To legally conceal the gun, Nebraskans are required to submit to a Nebraska State Patrol background check, get fingerprinted and take a gun safety course at their own expense.
Most bills need 33 votes to pass in Nebraska's unique one-house Legislature. There are currently 17 Democratic lawmakers in the officially nonpartisan body — enough to successfully filibuster most bills if they all vote together.
But two other Democrats joined Wayne and McKinney in voting for the permitless conceal carry bill, including Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell, a former Omaha firefighter union president who switched to support the measure after the Omaha police union pulled its objection to the bill. Democratic Sen. Lynne Walz, of Fremont, abstained from voting.
A spokesperson for Republican Gov. Jim Pillen's office said Friday that the governor supports the bill and would sign it into law if it passes.