LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers rejected an effort Thursday to restrict ivory sales as a handful of other states have done to discourage poaching of African elephants, rhinoceroses and other animals hunted for their horns and tusks.
Opponents in the Legislature argued that federal law made the bill redundant and that the bill sought to address a nonexistent problem in the state. Senators voted 19-9 in favor of the measure, six short of what was needed to give it first-round approval.
Federal law already imposes restrictions on ivory, including a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. The Nebraska bill’s sponsor, Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha, said local law enforcement should have the power to enforce a state-level law because federal authorities don’t consider such cases a high priority.
“I do think we need to protect ivory, and we want to discourage illegal ivory sales,” Harr said. “This doesn’t go after law-abiding citizens. This goes after people who are already violating federal law.”
Critics said they had seen no evidence that ivory trading was a major problem in Nebraska and they argued that even if it was, the proposal amounted to another state mandate for local governments. Some opponents have said the bill would force people to prove that their possessions were exempt from the law if they happened to contain ivory.
“This is feel-good legislation,” said Sen. Mike Groene, of North Platte.
It’s not clear whether Nebraska has seen any major ivory sales that would violate federal law. Harr said two constituents, a mother and daughter, brought the issue to his attention and prompted him to introduce the bill last year.
California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington have passed similar measures aimed at animal trafficking, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Nevada passed a measure last year designed to eliminate the market for elephant ivory, rhino horns and sea turtle shells.
The Nebraska bill would have included exceptions for knives, firearms, certain musical instruments, antiques and other items to try to address concerns about unintended consequences. Before the final vote on the bill, lawmakers added language to make clear that sellers would have to know they were selling or trading ivory.
The debate produced one moment of levity when a GOP state senator joked that the bill could help moderate Republicans, known derisively as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) in the ostensibly nonpartisan Legislature.
“This bill protects RINOs, and there’s a small herd of them in this room,” said Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus.
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