Senate adds training mandate to guns on campus bill

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 274 views 

The Arkansas Senate on Thursday (Feb. 16) added a training requirement to a bill requiring public colleges and universities to allow concealed carry permit holders to bring their weapons on campus – a change the House sponsor called a “hostile amendment” that “effectively guts the bill.”

House Bill 1249 by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, passed the Senate, 21-10, with the amendment by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock. The amendment would require concealed carry permit holders to obtain at least 16 hours of active shooter training designed by the Arkansas State Police. It also includes other changes.

With or without the amendment, the bill eliminates an opt out provision contained in legislation passed in 2013. Under that law, higher education institutions could allow their staff members to carry a weapon, but they also could opt out of allowing them to do so. All of the state’s colleges and universities opted out, and many have expressed opposition to the bill.

A new Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College survey of 440 Arkansans shows that 61% support concealed carry by staff on college campuses, but by a 40-38% margin they feel boards of trustees should make the call. Twenty-two percent (22%) were undecided. The statewide poll was taken on Tuesday, Feb. 14 and has a margin of error of 4.5%.

The original bill includes a number of exemptions, including for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Clinton School of Public Service. Exceptions for all higher education institutions would include formal employee grievance hearings and special events if enough law enforcement officers are present.

The amendment expands the list of situations where colleges and universities can prohibit possession of a firearm, including numerous types of meetings, student health and counseling services, and events where the school’s governing body votes to prohibit it. Also, staff members would be required to notify campus police departments of their intent to carry a firearm, or would inform the local law enforcement agency if the university does not have a department. Institutions would be immune from liability for a staff member’s actions.

On Wednesday, Hutchinson introduced the same amendment in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it failed after receiving only two votes. He said in an interview that he knew that several senators in both parties believed the bill needed a training requirement. The bill now returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which could strip the amendment or add others. Collins said he would speak with Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, a co-sponsor, about what happens next.

“My expectation is that we’re going to try and salvage HB 1249 so that we can have its original intent,” he said in an interview.

In explaining his eleventh-hour amendment on the Senate floor, Hutchinson said he supports Collins’ bill. However, he said, “I think if we are going to mandate policy, which we are by telling university employers they have to allow employees to carry, then we ought to get the right policy,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would argue that some training is a lot better than no training.”

After Hutchinson finished defending changes made to the bill, Garner expressed dismay that his fellow senator did not follow a tradition of not making changes to legislation that comes before the full body.

“Rep. Collins has been working on this bill for years. He’s held hundreds of meetings, town halls with hostile crowds and discussed with different parties in the House,” said Garner, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Special Forces.  “This amendment that was drawn at the eleventh hour didn’t exist until yesterday.”

Following Garner’s impassioned speech to allow HB 1249 to move forward as is, several other lawmakers came to the podium to speak for and against the amended legislation for nearly 45 minutes. After debate ended, the amended version was approved by a vote of 21-10. Three senators did not vote.

Collins in an interview described the addition as a “hostile amendment” that “effectively guts the bill so that no one would really be able to jump through these wickets and carry in any meaningful way.” He said that requiring “at least” 16 hours of training meant an unlimited amount could be required, and that it could be cost-prohibitive for permit holders.

Hutchinson said the amount of training was merely meant to let the Arkansas State Police design the training and he would be willing to clarify that fact. He said he was supportive of faculty and staff members being able to arm themselves on campus, adding that he had sponsored a bill two years ago letting K-12 public schools train staff members in using weapons on campus. If training is required in K-12 environments, it should be required on college and university campuses, he said.

“I wouldn’t consider it hostile,” he said. “There’s certainly no hostility intended. I think it’s making the bill better, and we each as elected members have a right to try to improve legislation as we see fit, and if you can get 18 votes in the Senate, then the bill is improved.”

In a press conference Thursday that occurred shortly before the Senate vote, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he had asked Collins for further discussions about the issue.

“There’s hopefully a willingness to address some of my concerns for coordination and training with the law enforcement that’s already on the campus,” Hutchinson said, adding that there could be amendments on the Senate floor. Collins, Sen. Hutchinson, and university officials met Wednesday, when Collins offered a compromise: requiring training but allowing everyone on campus with a concealed carry permit, including students, to participate. Simply requiring faculty and staff to carry without the participation of others would have been too restrictive, Collins said.

But university officials were opposed. Dr. Chuck Welch, president of the Arkansas State University System, said in an email that the system was opposed to letting students carry firearms just as it was opposed to faculty and staff do so.

“I think adding students to the legislation would have created even more difficulties for our campuses,” he said.

Talk Business & Politics Senior Reporter Wesley Brown contributed to this report.