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Questions raised over gun purchase for gaming commission, whether racetrack study fell short



LINCOLN — Questions are being raised about the recent purchase of semi-automatic rifles by the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission, and whether a December report sufficiently answered whether the state could handle more racetrack/casinos.

The questions come as the commission, which has ramped up to 25 employees since the opening of casinos in Nebraska 16 months ago, will meet Friday to discuss the gun purchase and whether a new analysis is needed about whether more than six racetrack/casinos should be allowed in the state.

Report said no more racinos needed

That 111-page “market analysis” issued late last month concluded that Nebraska didn’t need any additional racetracks. That dealt a blow to several communities across the state that want to apply for a state permit to open so-called “racinos,” a racetrack with a casino.

At least two members of the commission — Tony Fulton and Shane Greckel — along with State Sen. John Lowe told the Examiner on Thursday that the recent report was incomplete.

Lowe, who heads the committee that deals with gambling in the Nebraska Legislature, said the report barely mentions the impact on the horse racing industry in the state.

State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“I think the whole study needs to be redone,” the senator said.

Fulton, a former state senator and state tax commissioner, said the report didn’t cover all the topics required by the Legislature, which ordered the study to help determine whether the state could support more casinos and horse racing.

Currently, casinos are only allowed at the existing racetracks in Lincoln, Grand Island, Omaha, Columbus, South Sioux City and Hastings. Several communities, including Bellevue, Norfolk, North Platte, Fremont, Kimball and York have also expressed interest in opening casinos.

Addendum needed

Another member of the Gaming Commission, Shane Greckel of Bloomfield, also said the study was incomplete.

“It definitely needs an amendment or addendum,” Greckel said. “It never even highlighted anything of the value to agriculture that racing brings.”

Two organizations — Warhorse Gaming and the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association — sent letters to the commission this week, calling for a new study of whether more racinos should be allowed.

Among the concerns raised by Lance Morgan of Warhorse Gaming was that the study was premature because every casinos in the state has yet to fully open, thus their impact couldn’t be accurately measured.

The study was done by The Innovation Group, a gaming consulting business based in New Orleans, that was paid $48,000 for its analysis.

The analysis of whether new racinos are needed might come into play Friday when the Racing and Gaming Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to allow the transfer of the quarterhorse racing license in Hastings to Ogallala. That would allow the opening of the first casino in the state west of Grand Island.

Gun purchase was a surprise

The market analysis on the impact of more racinos came a month after members of commission learned, to their surprise, that the agency had purchased 10 short-barrel, semi-automatic rifles for use by its 10 plain-clothes investigators.

Sig Sauer MPX
This civilian Sig Sauer MPX model is similar to the law-enforcement grade guns recently purchased by the Racing and Gaming Commission. They are a short-barrel, semi-automatic rifle that shoots 9mm handgun ammunition. (Courtesy of Sig Sauer)

The Sig Sauer MPX rifles, plus associated equipment, cost $30,350. Commissioners learned about the purchase in November and were later told that the guns would be used only as “a last resort” in the event of an active shooter event at a casino or racetrack. The firearms, officials said, would not be carried on the casino floor, but would be kept within easy access in the event of an incident.

“You have to meet force with force,” said Steve Eppens, a former Lancaster County deputy sheriff who is an investigator with the commission. Most active shooter incidents involve assault rifles, he said.

Steve Anderson, the director of enforcement at the commission, said all his investigators are sworn law enforcement officers who regularly train with weapons.

He said that there have been nine shooter-related incidents at casinos since 2018 and that the MPXs are the same weapons used by the Nebraska State Patrol for its SWAT teams.

A ‘regulatory’ agency

Said Eppens, “If you don’t think active shooter incidents happen at casinos, just Google it.”

Lowe questioned whether the Gaming Commission needs such firepower.

“This is a regulatory agency,” he said.

The State Patrol, the senator added, is there to deal with shooting incidents.

Both Fulton and Greckel said that once an explanation was provided to justify the gun purchase, they agreed with it.

Could have been handled better

But the two commissioners said that the decision to buy the guns could have been handled better and that the commission is now adopting guidelines on how such purchases should be approved.

Tom Sage
Tom Sage, the executive director of the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission, which has grown to 25 staffers since the advent of casino gambling in the state in 2022. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Tom Sage, the executive director of the Racing and Gaming Commission, said in a recent interview that the guns were purchased to be “proactive.”

“We’re trying like hell to make sure we don’t have a big issue at a casino and then we hear, ‘we told you so,’ ” Sage said.

He said that criminal activities do occur at casinos, mentioning sex trafficking, drugs, fraud and gang-related activity. Sage added there was a fatal shooting at Fonner Park in March.

Sage recently took a leave of absence to deal with personal health issues and was unavailable to respond to questions raised about the market analysis of racinos.

‘I’ll put our record up against anyone’

But in a recent interview with the Examiner, he defended the steps he’s taken in recent months to ramp up the commission to deal with a new industry, gambling casinos.

The organization, Sage said, had to hire new staff and learn about a totally new activity in the state and how to regulate it.

Both he and the agency’s lawyer, Ryan Forrest, said that’s brought a lot of pressure to bear and long hours.

“You can’t make everyone happy,” Forrest said.

Added Sage, “I’ll put our record up against anyone.”

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