A controversial “guns on campus” proposal backed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the National Rifle Association that would expand the list of places where gun owners can carry a concealed weapon was easily approved by a House panel on Tuesday (March 14), moving the heavily-amended legislation only one step from becoming a law.
After being sent back to the House Judiciary Committee following a meandering route through the Senate over the last 35 days — including a maneuver on Thursday to pull the bill out of the committee and straight onto the Senate floor — HB1249 is now headed to the House floor, where it was first approved on Feb. 2.
Sponsor Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, who has worked on the legislation for nearly five years, told the House panel he was pleased with the final draft of his bill that was referred back to committee following a fierce fight to harmonize the bill with seven different amendments in the Senate.
Speaking in support of his legislation, Collins said his sole goal throughout the arduous process was to deter “some of these rampage killers from coming to Arkansas campuses.”
“I believe what we are constructing in Arkansas, this training initiative to achieve an enhanced permit, is an idea that I predict will become a model for other states to adapt and build off of,” Collins said.
Collins also said his original bill, first filed on Jan. 23, was a product of fine-tuned talks with college officials and other groups to propose a concealed carry law that applied to state-supported colleges and universities. But, he said, Gov. Hutchinson and other lawmakers in the Senate brought a broader thinking to the legislation, derived from research of the Sandy Hook (Conn.) Elementary School shooting in December 2012 that included an enhanced training component.
“The governor’s idea about the importance of training as the element that qualifies was really the core change and the core difference in the bill,” Collins said. “Now, instead of making it about a class of persons to achieve the objectives that we talked about earlier, we now have training that is above and beyond the concealed carry permit.”
That training section in the bill was also the focus of nearly an hour of back-and-forth questioning to Collins from House Judiciary members during the committee meeting. There were at least a half-dozen questions about the “nominal costs” associated with the training program, and other queries on whether or not HB1249 represented an unfunded mandate and further restricted the rights of gun owners in Arkansas.
Under the last amended draft of HB1249, any licensee who intends to carry a concealed handgun at a public or state-supported university — including students, faculty or visitors, will be required to complete a training course approved by the director of the Arkansas State Police. The training requirement consists of up to eight hours of course instruction at a nominal cost.
Also, any permit-holders with the training endorsement could carry a weapon in public buildings, including any building on the Capitol grounds. They can also carry a weapon in places of worship, bars and certain restaurants, unless those establishments post a notice prohibiting guns at those locations.
The agreed upon exceptions include courtrooms and administrative hearings, K-12 public schools, and state prison facilities. The bill also removes certain requirements in an earlier amendment that would allow any permit holder 25 years or older to carry a weapon on campus after undergoing 16 hours of active shooter training.
VOICES OF THE OPPOSITION
Despite Collins’ insistence his bill was now much improved with the governor’s input, there was also opposition from private gun owners and a familiar group of “moms” that have opposed the bill since it was first filed in late January.
Brian Morrison, a private citizen from Mountain Home, told the committee in very strong terms that HB1249 would weaken the rights of Arkansas gun owners. The Canadian native, who is now a U.S. citizen, said he moved to Arkansas several years ago from the Northeast because he wanted to move to a Southern state with friendlier gun laws.
“When I first moved down here, I realized [that] was furthest from the truth,” he said. “I had more gun freedoms in the Yankee states than I did in Arkansas. In the state of Wisconsin, I’ve carried my firearm into the Capitol building with no objections from the state police. I have carried my firearm in the state of Kentucky with no objections. But yet here in Arkansas, this is limited, and when I cross that line I am considered criminal until I am proven otherwise.”
Mimicking Collins’ testimony that the intent of HB1249 was to prevent “crazies from shooting up college campuses,” Morrison told the committee that it would instead punish law-abiding citizens.
“A criminal does not follow the law, no matter what law you pass,” he said. “What this bill does is put more restrictions on my safety. What this bill does is say that I, as a law-abiding citizen, am a criminal until I can pay the state.”
Austin Bailey, director of the Arkansas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, also spoke against the legislation but offered a totally different perspective than Morrison and other gun rights activists. Bailey said her grassroots group has opposed all of the pro-gun legislation in the 2017 legislative session to put firearms on college campuses and other public places.
“I would remind everyone that colleges in our state have had the opportunity to allow guns on campuses for years now, and every single university has made the intentional and well thought-out choice not to allow guns on campuses,” said Bailey, who was joined by a group of nearly a dozen “Moms” from Fayetteville and other parts of the state.
“The bill that we are talking about today is significantly broader than the original version,” Bailey said. “In addition to forcing Arkansas universities and colleges to allow guns on campuses, this bill also allows hidden, loaded guns into other sensitive areas where they should be, including bars, crowded sporting events, [such as] Razorback Stadium, airports and municipal parks, where our kids play soccer on Saturday morning.”
NRA BACKS BILL
Collins did get the support of state and national NRA officials, who have been instrumental in drafting and reviewing several of the amended versions of HB1249. Anthony Roulette, the Arkansas liaison for the powerful gun rights lobby, told the committee the training component in the amended legislation is modeled after similar laws in Mississippi.
Roulette told the committee the NRA, which has “tens of thousands” of members in Arkansas, was very happy with the outcome and the process to draft the final amended bill.
“It started as a little bill that did a little bit of good, making it a little bit safer on college campuses by allowing staff and professors to carry …,” he said. “It has expanded well beyond that; it has gone well beyond campus carry.”
The NRA lobbyist also disagreed with some of the Second Amendment proponents who believed some of their gun rights would be restricted under HB1249.
“They don’t lose access to anything, they don’t get charged any more fees, and they don’t have to take more training,” he said. “It does not add any additional restrictions on those individuals. What it does do is open up options who do want to get an enhanced permit.”
After the debate, the House committee quickly moved to approve Collins’ bill in a voice vote where only a few legislators dissented. In the first vote in early February, the House approved the original HB1249 by a vote of 71-22 with six members not voting.