LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — Should an 18-year-old be allowed to buy an AR-15?
“I would say that in the state of Nebraska, the answer is ‘absolutely yes,’” replied Gov. Pete Ricketts when asked at a Tuesday press conference.
Banning those under 21 from buying military-style rifles emerged as a major issue after a teenager in Texas, just after his 18th birthday, purchased two AR-15s. He used one of them to kill 21 people — 19 of them 4th graders — inside an elementary school last week in Uvalde, Texas.
Ricketts, a staunch supporter of gun rights who advocated this year for an end to Nebraska’s concealed handgun carry training and registration requirements, told reporters Tuesday that the focus after such mass shootings should be on the person “pulling the trigger” and not the weapon used.
“That’s where the real problem lies,” he said, mentioning that the “root cause” is mental health care. A number of steps have been taken recently to address that cause, the Republican governor said, including the allocation of $40 million this year from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for new mental health care facilities.
He added that a study last year by Stanford University found that 28 of 35 recent gunmen in mass shootings had some psychiatric diagnosis. That study looked only at assailants who survived.
"Most people in Nebraska are law-abiding citizens. And we ought not to focus on the gun but the person who is pulling the trigger."
– Gov. Pete Ricketts
AR-15s and their variants, which have been billed as “America’s rifle” by the National Rifle Association, are lightweight, self-loading, semi-automatic rifles that gun control groups define as “assault weapons.” They can be fitted with high-capacity ammunition magazines allowing them to fire more than 10 rounds before reloading.
“They are generally capable of firing far more bullets, far faster than manual-action hunting rifles,” says the website for Everytown for Gun Safety, adding that the “muzzle energy” of an AR-15 can be four times greater than a handgun, thus inflicting more damage.
That national gun control group was formed after 20 schoolchildren and six teachers were gunned down in 2012 in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Everytown, Connecticut. It maintains that banning sales of such “excessively dangerous” weapons will prevent mass shooting injuries and deaths.
"Lawmakers should act urgently to prohibit these excessively dangerous firearms."
– Everytown for Gun Safety
Assault rifles, which were banned federally from public sale in the U.S. from 1994-2004, have accounted for 25% of the deaths and 76% of nonfatal injuries in mass shootings between 2009 and 2018, assault weapons, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.
USA Today reported that AR-15s, or variants of the gun, have been used in 11 mass shootings since 2012, including at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an Aurora, Colorado, theater and a Parkland, Florida, high school.
Ricketts, who often tweets about successful turkey, deer and goose hunts that he enjoys, used the more generic term “rifle” in answering the question about AR-15s.
Later, when asked if sales specifically of military-style weapons should be banned, Ricketts said it would be impossible to define what a “military-style” weapon is.
“What are the qualifications for that? … You can’t tell what that is,” he said. “The military buys handguns. Does that mean they’re assault rifles now?”
“You throw up all these red herrings about how to restrict people’s gun rights. But we actually have to focus on what is really the root cause,” Ricketts said, “and that gets back to a person who was disturbed and does terrible things, like we saw down in Texas.”
“We have to focus on, ‘How do we have better interventions? How do we get to the people who need that help?’” he said.
He said that Cook County, Illinois, which includes the city of Chicago, has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, but also one of the nation’s highest murder rates.
“Chicago has proven there’s no rationale” for additional gun laws, Ricketts said.
When asked if a “red-flag law” — which allows a judge to order the temporary confiscation of weapons from someone suffering a mental-health crisis — would help prevent someone with mental health issues from using a gun in a mass shooting, Ricketts disagreed.
He said that firearm possession is a constitutional right, which is “a high bar,” and that to take such a right away requires due process.
Nineteen states, as well as the District of Columbia, have enacted red-flag laws.
One was proposed in Nebraska in 2020 by State Sen Adam Morfeld of Lincoln. But it prompted a backlash from gun-rights advocates and a threat against Morfeld.
Ricketts did say Tuesday that he was supportive of an effort launched by State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, after the Uvalde shootings, to form a committee to study how to make school more secure and safer for students.
Ricketts spoke at a National Rifle Association national convention in 2018. That same year, during his last re-election campaign, he received a $2,500 donation from the NRA and $5,000 from Hornady Industries of Grand Island, which makes ammunition.
The NRA gave Ricketts $1,000 in 2014, the first year he was elected governor.
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