Catsavis: Firearms should be allowed in parks

The debate over allowing firearms in Fort Smith parks took a surprising turn Tuesday when Fort Smith City Director George Catsavis suggested during a study session that city rules be changed to allow anyone with a concealed weapons permit to possess a firearm in a city park.

Firearm possession in city parks is not allowed by existing city regulations. Arkansas Carry, a gun rights group, has challenged the city’s rules. Specifically, Arkansas Carry alleged in a Jan. 13 letter to Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack that Fort Smith violated portions of Arkansas law (A.C.A. Sections 14-16-504 and 14-54-1411) with its prohibition on the carry of firearms at public parks.

Arkansas Carry is basing its argument on A.C.A. Section 14-54-1411, which states “A local unit of government shall not enact any ordinance or regulation pertaining to, or regulate in any other manner, the ownership, transfer, transportation, carrying, or possession of firearms, ammunition for firearms, or components of firearms, except as otherwise provided in state or federal law.”

In 2009, Arkansas Carry convinced Sebastian County to remove their firearms law from the county code. In 2012, the cities of Russellville and Conway considered passing firearms ordinances, but these plans were dropped after receiving pressure from Arkansas Carry.

In a letter dated Jan. 17, Fort Smith attorney Wyman Wade Jr. wrote to Gosack that section 18-67 “is authorized as permissible municipal legislation on a state affair” and is “not in conflict with state law. Wade did recommend an amendment to 18-67 that essentially clarifies the prohibition against carrying a firearm – with the exception of local, state and federal officers – in “any publicly owned building or facility.”

As to the question of concealed handgun permits, Wade also said state law and an Arkansas Attorney General opinion provide cities the authority to broadly prohibit handgun possession.

Steve Jones, chairman of Arkansas Carry, responded to Wade’s opinion with a letter reaffirming their points in the Jan. 13 letter. However, in the response letter, Jones included language from a 2003 opinion from then Attorney General Mike Beebe.

“In 2003, by removing municipal parks from the list set forth in A.C.A. § 5-73-306, the General Assembly expressed a clear intent to permit persons with concealed handgun licenses to carry handguns in municipal parks,” noted Beebe’s opinion.

“I think we should get more information on this, but yes, I’d like for our citizens with a concealed carry (permit) to bring their guns (to a park) if they want to,” Catsavis said at the end of Tuesday’s (Jan. 22) Fort Smith Board of Directors’ study session.

The discussion was short-lived, with Catsavis and City Director Keith Lau debating the matter. Lau believes the issue should be settled outside the purview of the Board.

“For us to look at this, it is just going to be an awfully divisive issue. … We shouldn’t be in the middle of it,” Lau said, suggesting that the Arkansas Legislature or other authorities should determine how state law should be prescribed.

“I personally believe in the right to carry in parks, but I just don’t think the Board of Directors of the city of Fort Smith is the right venue for this decision,” Lau said in an interview after the meeting. “We need to be focused in on jobs and economic development.”