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Civic Engagement

Overview and Reflections on Lincoln’s Safe Storage Task Force

In July 2019, the mayor’s office of Lincoln, NE released a report of the findings and recommendations of a volunteer task force on the topic of limiting child access to firearms and safe storage. This report was the culmination of six meetings of a diverse group of stakeholders, including public health, Lincoln Public Schools, suicide prevention, law enforcement, and members of the public. 

Since the release of the report, some members of the Lincoln City Council and the editorial team at the Lincoln Journal Star have made public statements that indicate they either did not actually read the report or do not take seriously the data and evidence the group assessed.

As a member of the task force, I want to correct the misleading picture of the task force’s work.

Background

The task force itself was a culmination of both evidence and public interest. Following the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida in the spring of 2018, a youth led movement held a march with over 1,000 attendees in downtown Lincoln. Over 2,600 of Lincoln’s youth joined students around the country by leading walkouts from their high schools and middle schools. As a response, hundreds of people attended a community led town hall at Lincoln High School to address the community’s concerns over school safety. 

At Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, we looked at scholarly research and evidence available nationally, which concludes that safe storage laws, paired with education about the policy, is the most effective means of reducing the numbers of guns getting into the hands of minors. Following the youth led march, I reached out to councilwoman Jane Raybould to understand the process of getting an ordinance proposed.

Raybould advised me that with a topic that was sure to bring a lot of conversation in the community, it was beneficial to show strong public support for the policy before it was proposed. She told me about the open comment period available at some city council meetings. Following Raybould’s advice, we mobilized about 50 people who spoke at the mic meeting in September 2018. We also mobilized hundreds of people who wrote letters on the topic to council members. Over the next four months, supporters of a safe storage ordinance spoke at city council meetings a total of six times before there was any action from city government. We were surprised that not one of them acted upon the outpouring of public interest in this clear, data-mandated policy proposal.

The Work of the Task Force

Finally, in January 2019, Mayor Beutler announced the formation of a task force to study the issue. Some of our board members were skeptical of the task force, as an ordinance could be written without one, and a six-month-long task force effectively paused the public pressure during the time period of city elections. However, we proceeded in good faith. The task force‘s charge was to look at gun violence as a public health issue and study intersections between the city’s children and firearms. The diverse membership included law enforcement, doctors, public health experts, and non profit leaders. Two members of NAGV were included, myself and Emily Killham, along with a Lincoln middle school student who led a walkout the previous spring at her school. After the group’s membership was published, three more people were added to the roster. What may surprise the people of Lincoln is that two of those people were NRA lobbyists, whose names the chair of the committee did not include in the final report. For transparency, I’ll list them – Holley Bolen, NRA Lobbyist and employee at former Nebraka Attorney General Jon Bruning’s Law Firm, and Travis Lovelace-Couture, Kansas resident, NRA regional lobbyist, and former Kansas state representative.

Captain Jason Stille from the Lincoln Police Department chaired the task force. I noted across the six meetings that agendas were often vague, lacking specific topics for discussion. For two meetings, Captain Stille distributed the exact same unspecific agenda. Paired with patchy attendance, including a meeting for which fewer than a simple majority were in attendance, it was difficult to maintain continuity in the conversation from month to month. The organization of the task force was further limited by the lack of shared meeting minutes to help members recall conversations month to month. Only towards the end of our meetings did I learn minutes had been posted on the mayor’s website. I don’t know who approved the minutes before they were posted or when they were posted. Minutes were not seen or approved by the group before they were posted. 

I cannot speak for the entire task force, but the overall effect of these issues for our members was a lack of direction: we did not know meeting to meeting what would be discussed or need to be re-discussed for the benefit of absent members, or even what kind of product we were tasked with producing by the end of the six meetings or how we would arrive at it. We were reluctant to jump in and provide this necessary direction because we did not want the diverse membership to feel as though we were inappropriately controlling the direction of the committee. Finally, despite being limited to a total of six and a half hours over a six month period, very little time was dedicated to discussion of a safe storage ordinance. In fact, it was raised directly only midway through the second-to-last meeting.

I had never been on a public task force before and wasn’t sure what to expect as I went to my first meeting. The weather was bad that day and there were several missing people, including Councilman Bennie Shobe, the city council’s representative. Looking back, I don’t believe it was the weather which caused Shobe to miss the meeting, as he missed 3 of the 6 meetings and left early for 2 of the three he attended. Because he represented the policy makers in Lincoln, I found this shocking and disappointing. 

The task force members generally discussed topics you might expect a task force on gun violence to cover: local data from city sources, existing city ordinances, study of national research, efforts in the state legislature, and a look at other cities’ efforts. The members who came regularly were engaged in the topics presented and I personally walked away with a richer sense of how Lincoln works, the public health data associated with children and guns, and the value of bringing diverse residents together to study an issue impacting the public. Given the breadth of topics and sources of data, as a task force member, I felt like we needed at least 1-2 more meetings to finish our discussion. However, Captain Stille was unable to continue in his role as chair due to a prior commitment and we concluded. 

The final report of the task force discussed a comprehensive four-pronged approach that could include:

  1. a new city ordinance
  2. utilizing local partnerships in the medical, non profit, and business communities to provide gun safes, trigger locks, and secure storage locations for people temporarily in need
  3. coordinated citywide education and
  4. enforcement of current ordinances relating to firearms.

These recommendations were based on what the task force learned using local data sources for Lincoln, NE., which included the following: 

  • nearly 30% of children in Lincoln who die by suicide use an unsecured firearm;
  • nearly 60% of the perpetrators stealing firearms from cars in Lincoln are between 14 and 18 years old;
  • children have brought guns into Lincoln Public Schools at least 4 times in the past 4 years

Although the central issue that prompted the creation of the task force was a safe storage ordinance, crafting a safe storage ordinance was not listed in the charge of the task force, and the committee chair did not take a public vote of the task force members about a safe storage ordinance.

What the Task Force Said about a Safe Storage Ordinance

During the discussion of a safe storage ordinance toward the end of the task force schedule, many of the present task force members expressed support for a policy and few expressed opposition. The final report reflected the major themes that arose from all sides of that discussion. I believe that some of the arguments against a safe storage ordinance were not actually supported by any evidence reviewed by the task force, but those views were still represented in the report in an effort to present the opinions of everyone who offered an opinion.

Members of the task force discussed the following reasons to enact an ordinance:

  • scientific evidence is clear that safe storage laws reduce firearm deaths and injuries; 
  • unsecured firearms are a significant risk factor in high-casualty school shootings;
  • safe storage policy is constitutional as evidenced by the courts;
  • there is a lack of evidence that safe storage laws reduce self-defense uses of firearms; 
  • 72% of those aged 15-21 say that school shootings are a significant source of stress;
  • Other U.S. cities have successfully implemented safe storage ordinances.

Members of the task force who opposed an ordinance identified the following reasons:

  • general dislike of gun laws;
  • a willingness to pass the buck to state lawmakers to legislate city government
  • an unsupported claim about self defense;
  • worry that an ordinance may not be constitutional despite clear evidence that constitutional challenges around the country have held up in court;
  • concerns about how such an ordinance would be enforced, despite existing successful enforcement in many cities and states around the U.S.;
  • desire for more data that would require time, money, and resources.

What Are They Waiting For? 

As of this time, nobody on the City Council has proposed an ordinance. However, the many members of the public who spoke at council and wrote letters to support an ordinance, along with the youth who organized a march and walkouts, demonstrated they want to see a vote on this topic. Just last month, at Lincoln’s Pride event, almost 700 people who live in or visit Lincoln filled out postcards asking for our leaders to do something to address gun violence. As a member of Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, I ask: who on the Lincoln city council will have the political backbone to bring this issue to a vote and to stand up for science, children, and common sense?