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Activists with assault rifles stir fears at Nebraska Capitol

February 25, 2020 GMT
CORRECTS SOURCE TO NET NEWSNEBRASKA - This Feb. 21, 2020 photo provided by NET NewsNebraska shows Brett Hendrix, who brought an assault rifle to the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln to demonstrate his Second Amendment rights. Some Nebraska lawmakers expressed shock and outrage Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 that gun owners were allowed to bring loaded, semi-automatic rifles into the state Capitol to protest bills that would have imposed new restrictions on gun ownership. (Fred Knapp/NET NewsNebraska via AP)
CORRECTS SOURCE TO NET NEWSNEBRASKA - This Feb. 21, 2020 photo provided by NET NewsNebraska shows Brett Hendrix, who brought an assault rifle to the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln to demonstrate his Second Amendment rights. Some Nebraska lawmakers expressed shock and outrage Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 that gun owners were allowed to bring loaded, semi-automatic rifles into the state Capitol to protest bills that would have imposed new restrictions on gun ownership. (Fred Knapp/NET NewsNebraska via AP)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Some Nebraska lawmakers expressed shock and outrage Monday that gun owners were allowed to bring loaded, semi-automatic rifles into the state Capitol to protest bills that would have imposed new restrictions on gun ownership.

Some lawmakers said they viewed the demonstration as an intimidation tactic during a contentious legislative hearing Friday afternoon that drew an estimated 400 protesters. A few of those protesters displayed their guns in the hallways and in a public hearing room, even though the Nebraska Capitol bars people from wielding political signs or props in the building and doesn’t allow concealed firearms.

“I was intimidated. I was scared,” said Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, of Omaha, who sponsored a bill to prohibit people with domestic violence convictions from buying guns. “I was worried about how someone might react to my bill, and how what I had to say might lead to a dangerous reaction.”

Cavanaugh said the Legislature’s current rules are “egregiously inadequate” to protect lawmakers and the public.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who serves on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said she didn’t feel comfortable asking questions about the bills with armed opponents in the room.

“Something needs to be done,” said Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln. “We should have the ability for people to come into our capitol, our state building, and feel comfortable and safe.”

Similar conflicts have sprouted up in statehouses throughout the country. In Idaho, an 11 year-old girl toted a loaded AR-15 assault weapon into a legislative hearing Monday with her grandfather to support a proposal that would allow visitors to Idaho who can legally possess firearms to carry a concealed handgun within city limits.

Last month, Virginia lawmakers banned guns at the state Capitol despite bitter protests from Republicans who argued that guns protect public safety.

Nebraska bans concealed guns in the Capitol but allows gun owners to carry their firearms openly, except on the legislative floor or the balconies above it. Guns are also banned in the Nebraska Supreme Court’s chambers, the only place in the Capitol where metal detectors are commonly used.

Nebraska state Sen. Tom Brewer, a champion sniper and gun-rights supporter, said he understands that some people are afraid of guns but argued that further restricting them would only draw more opposition in the gun-friendly state.

“I didn’t think there was a need for anyone to bring a gun into the building, but it is their right to do that,” Brewer said Monday. “If you want to write rules to prohibit that, have at it, but understand that 400 (protesters) could turn into 800 pretty quick, because this is an issue that people will stand their ground on.”

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said in an interview Monday that he was looking into why the Capitol’s policy is written as it is.

Scheer said he isn’t pursuing any changes that would bar guns from the Capitol, but he acknowledged that a person displaying a gun could be perceived as threatening. He also questioned why one type of gun possession is allowed in the building while the other isn’t.

“I’m not exactly sure why they’re being treated differently,” he said.

The hearing Friday was also noteworthy because of public remarks from a Lincoln gun shop owner with purported ties to a white supremacist group. In 2018, the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association dropped its plans to hold its meeting in Pringle’s shop after learning that he had been identified as a member of the National Alliance.

When a senator asked Pringle if he wanted to respond to the accusation, he acknowledged that he was the National Alliance’s membership coordinator. He said he also knew Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and added, “I love my race more than any other race, just like I love my family more than any other family and my children more than any other children.”

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