- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A bill that would overturn most local gun ordinances that are more stringent than Nebraska state law cleared a key hurdle Wednesday despite protests from some Omaha and Lincoln area senators who raised public safety concerns.

Lawmakers gave initial approval to a gun-rights pre-emption bill 32-12, after supporters overcame a filibuster by opponents who want to preserve existing local rules.

Supporters said the bill would eliminate a confusing patchwork of local gun ordinances, particularly in Omaha and Lincoln. Critics in the Legislature argued the bill would allow gun-rights groups to sue cities which refuse to repeal their rules even if aren’t directly harmed.

“I have to imagine that some big, out-of-state group is going to try to come in and get attorneys’ fees,” said Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln.

Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the concerns about lawsuits were overblown and argued that statewide policies would stop local governments from infringing on gun rights.

“This does not expose cities to unnecessary liability,” he said. “If they follow state law, which they should, they will not be sued. And if they are sued, that means they’re not following state law.”

Law enforcement groups and some elected city officials in Lincoln and Omaha oppose the bill, arguing that it fails to consider differences between higher-crime urban areas and the rest of the state. Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue called the bill a “wedge issue” and argued that most gun owners support reasonable restrictions.

The measure includes exceptions for Omaha after the city’s police union warned that it could hinder their ability to fight gang violence.

Two more votes are required before the bill heads to Gov. Pete Ricketts.

If the bill passes, Nebraska would join a growing list of states that have pre-empted local gun laws at the urging of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups. The bill would give lawmakers the sole power to regulate gun ownership, possession and transportation. Local governments could still pass ordinances to keep guns from being fired within city limits or to regulate firearms used by law enforcement.

A similar measure was defeated by a legislative filibuster last year when supporters fell one vote short of the support needed to bring the bill to a vote.

Omaha’s ordinances include a registry that allows officers to deny guns to the mentally ill and known gang associates, and allows police to look up whether someone with an outstanding arrest warrant owns a handgun. Other restrictions aimed at juveniles are designed to curb gang violence.

Lincoln’s ordinances prohibit bringing guns onto city buses, in landfills and parks, and in city and county buildings. One ordinance gives the mayor the power to restrict gun sales and possession during a declared state of emergency. Lincoln officials said their ordinances help keep guns out of Pinnacle Bank Arena and other public buildings during major events.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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