Compromise legislation to allow any concealed carry permit-holders to carry a weapon at state colleges and universities hit a wall Wednesday (Mar. 8) as two proposals to amend the state’s 2013 open carry law were rejected by a Senate panel.
In a three-hour meeting where the Senate Judiciary Committee took up more than a dozen bills, much of the discussion centered around the heavily-amended House Bill 1249 sponsored by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville.
But it was Senate Bill 585, a 5-line measure sponsored by Republican Sens. Terry Rice of Waldron and Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas that touched off a debate that focused on Act 746, the law enacted nearly four years ago that has split Second Amendment advocates on the question of whether gun owners can legally open carry firearms almost anywhere in Arkansas.
“There are different belief and different things even with law enforcement, (but) … I am supportive of the way that many of them have come around to Act 746 and common sense that (gun owners) haven’t created a problem,” Rice said. “This goes back to the belief that the Constitution gives gun owners and handlers the right to defend themselves and train themselves, and (we) have gone above what is required.”
He added: “But to paint people that have guns as irresponsible is irresponsible.”
Under Rice’s bill, the state’s open carry law would be amended to simply state Arkansas “does not prohibit a person from carrying a handgun without a license to carry a concealed handgun …, whether openly or concealed, if he or she is not otherwise prohibited by the laws of this state from possessing a firearm in the state as permitted by the U.S. Constitution.”
In questioning Rice, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a Little Rock attorney who chairs the Senate Judiciary panel, said he was unsure if SB585 actually does anything.
“It may do nothing, if it is subject to the other laws of the state,” Hutchinson told Rice.
Sen. Will Bond, the only Democrat on the Senate committee, also said he believes the intent of the bills was to make Arkansas an “open carry state” without restrictions.
“The way I read it, this is a bill to make ‘open carry’ the law of Arkansas. If this bill passes, in your view, would you be able ‘open carry’ a gun to Target, Walmart, Subway, McDonald’s, or wherever you want?” Bond, an attorney, asked Rice.
Rice responded curtly to Hutchinson and Bond’s questions. “I didn’t draft this bill, but I’ve look at it and talked about it over a period of time and I believe what it says or I wouldn’t be running it.”
After other committee members finished questioning Rice, Lt. Colonel Tim K’Nuckles, deputy director of the Arkansas State Police (ASP), told the committee he also was unsure what Rice’s bill would accomplish.
“If it does away with the concealed handgun license, that could be about a $2.9 million impact to the agency. And that would affect essential services of our agency,” said K’Nuckles, who spoke against the bill.
In response to a question from Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, the Senate sponsor of HB1249, ASP spokeswoman Lt. Cora Gentry said Rice’s legislation would end the state’s concealed carry permitting program, which offers gun owners a license after completing handgun safety courses.
“There would be no reason to get a license,” Gentry said, adding that Arkansas gun owners would also be unable to conceal carry in other states with reciprocal laws.
Speaking for the bill, 2nd Amendment advocate Jan Morgan caused a stir in the packed committee when she told the Senate panel she was upset she couldn’t open carry at the State Capitol.
“I resent the fact that I had to stand on a street corner and walk blocks to get here today unarmed to come to my own State Capitol to address our legislators …, who get to walk out of their parking lots into this capital surrounded by armed guards,” Morgan said. “Yet, I have to walk down this crime-ridden city – which is the No. 1 per capital in the nation per capital – unarmed because of our laws.”
Morgan, a 2nd Amendment analyst for Fox News, told the Senate panel she supported SB585 because the Constitution allows gun owners the right to carry guns anywhere they please. “(This) right is a basic human right that cannot be given to you by lawmakers,” she said.
After her speech, the panel rejected the National Rifle Association backed bill by a vote of 3-3, with 2 members not voting. Later in the meeting, the committee took up a Garner’s HB1279, which was re-referred by to the committee last week for revision that would satisfy the sponsor, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the NRA. That amendment, offered by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, was rejected by the committee and rankled several Republican senators who bumped heads on the issue.
After the meeting, an animated Garner told reporters that the bill, which has already been amended five times, is the only “open carry” bill that has universal support in both the House and Senate.
“This bill will be passed,” he promised. “This is just a roadblock on the way to make sure we actually allow people to have their 2nd Amendment rights.”
The controversial legislation was amended a week ago following a committee compromise that would allow any permit holder 25 years or older to carry a weapon on campus after undergoing active shooter training and paying a nominal fee. Those changes to the bill were preceded on Feb. 16 by a training requirement added by Hutchinson that would have required concealed carry permit holders to obtain at least 16 hours of active shooter training designed by the Arkansas State Police.
If all else fails, Garner said he would even request the bill be pulled out of committee and sent straight to the Senate floor. The El Dorado Republican, who is U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, said the only changes to HB1279 he would support is Hendren’s amendment, which would require all permit holders of any age to take eight hours of gun safety training and cut back on the restrictions to the state’s concealed carry law, including bars.
Collins-Smith, who was within earshot of Garner’s media interview, said she believes the gun owners across the state want an open carry law that doesn’t limit their rights.
“Under this Republican leadership, Republican majority – they really want that. They don’t want to be restricted,” she said.
Collins-Smith, who invited NRA officials to the Capitol during the last Senate floor debate on HB1279, said she hopes the campus carry bill that lawmakers eventually support has no restrictions.
“You guys, this is a major pro-gun state. We are truly 2nd Amendment supporters and the climate is totally right for that,” she said. “If you looked at my history, I’ve always supported (this) and that means cutting back some of the restrictions that Arkansas has put on its citizens.”
Collins-Smith’s SB594, known as “The True Campus Carry Act,” was on the Senate Judiciary’s agenda to be heard today before the committee lost its quorum.
Much of Wednesday’s debate centered around Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s opinion two years ago on whether Arkansas law allows open carry after Gov. Mike Beebe signed Act 746 into law in June 2013. At the time, then-Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued an opinion stating that Act 746 did not allow people to openly tote pistols despite some language in the law that suggests otherwise.
In August 2015, however, Rutledge released a 16-page document that clarified her opinion on Act 746.
“An individual may carry a firearm so long as he or she does so without the intent to attempt to unlawfully use it against another person,” Rutledge said.
In that opinion, Rutledge said Act 746 created some confusion among the people of Arkansas and law enforcement in Arkansas on these questions.
“Ultimately, the confusion created would be best alleviated by additional legislative action to clarify what Act 746 was trying to accomplish,” Rutledge wrote.