The Arkansas House of Representatives, with an assist from the outgoing Speaker, approved legislation Thursday (March 30) to amend the recently enacted “guns on campus” bill that some lawmakers say opened the door for concealed carry permit-holders to take firearms to Razorback games and other sporting events.
Senate Bill 724, sponsored by Senate Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, was approved by a vote of 71-20, with eight non-voting members, after an hour-long debate that included testimony by House Speaker Rep. Jeremy Gillam of Judsonia.
The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson just over a week after he, lawmakers from both chambers, and representatives from the National Rifle Association (NRA) held a press conference at the Capitol to sign House Bill 1249 by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, into law. That measure, now Act 562 of 2017, will allow concealed carry permit-holders with enhanced training to carry firearms on college campuses and at an expanded list of public places. SB724 will add three new provisions that put Southeastern Conference and other collegiate sports associations and NRA officials at odds.
Collins, speaking in support of Dismang’s amendment to Act 562, argued that once the legislation is implemented into law in early 2018, it will serve as a national model for other states seeking to enact concealed carry legislation. In an attempt to allay concerns that the NRA opposed SB724, Collins told his fellow lawmakers that he and Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, the House sponsor of the bill, were the only two members in the chamber with an “A+ rating” from the national gun lobby.
“Both of us are going to vote for SB724,” said the Fayetteville Republican.
Collins said while Act 562 expands concealed carry into bars and restaurants, airports, state buildings, the State Capitol and across college campuses and other places, SB724 would be “a better bill.”
“I would submit to you it is perhaps the most expansive conceal carry law that will exist in the United States in a significant way,” Collins argued. “It is a transformative, ground-breaking, landmark piece of legislation in my view.”
Under the new provisions in SB724, the Arkansas State Police must approve “firearm-sensitive” areas at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the State Hospital and college athletic events. The legislation also expands the K-12 definition of prohibited concealed carry locations to include public daycare facilities. It also allows private institutions to have a choice of posting a “no guns allow” sign or provide a written or verbal notice for a licensee not to bring a handgun into a prohibited location.
Still, fellow Republican lawmakers Reps. Laurie Rushing and Justin Gonzales of Hot Springs and Okolona, respectively, spoke against the bill. Rushing called SB724 a “spinoff” of Act 526, saying that the Republican majority had an opportunity over several years with Collins’ leadership to work out any concerns that would have satisfied the SEC and NRA at the same time. The Hot Springs lawmaker said there was “some talk” among some of her constituents and other Republican members that Gov. Hutchinson may have signed HB1249 with an agreement that SB724 would later be attached to the newly enacted law. But Collins and Gillam both downplayed any backdoor deals.
“This is a bill like all the other bills we’ve dealt with. That being said, and I mentioned this earlier in the day, the one thing that I have really tried to compel this session is that we maintain a consistency of logic,” Gillam said on the House floor. “You can’t not make an argument yesterday and come in here and find faults with that argument today. That’s the one thing, outside our civility and how we treat each other, that I’ve preached and preached and preached since you’ve allowed me to be (Speaker).”
Gillam then said SB724 was simply a part of the legislative process, not anything nefarious. He said all of the additional amendments to Rep. Collins original concealed carry bill went through the same process that every bill has gone through in the 2017 session, which ends on Monday.
“We know this is not going to be perfect,” said the Republican House Speaker, who made to floor speeches during the session.
Just over a week ago, Dismang introduced SB724 to the Senate Judiciary Committee after the HB1249 signing ceremony. That eventually led to heated legislative debate on the Senate floor where new changes were added to the bill that would exempt gun owners from carrying a concealed firearm at UAMS, the State Hospital and Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, among other places.
After Senate approval in a vote 22-8 vote, the measure was sent to the House Judiciary Committee. It was approved on Tuesday by a vote of 11-7 after the Southeastern Conference and the NRA came out on opposite sides of the bill.
NRA AND SEC TAKE OPPOSING VIEWS
NRA spokesman Anthony Roulette on Tuesday said if law-abiding citizens can carry firearms to Razorback games and Arkansas sporting events, then potential law-breakers should be subject to security measures, such as metal detectors and pat downs.
“We’ve just got problems with the language,” said Roulette, NRA’s state liaison. “It’s just not clean. It’s not precise enough for us. We see a lot of potential for interpretations that would harm law-abiding gun owners. … If you’re going to say that law-abiding citizens cannot carry firearms into the stadium, then you need to put in place security measures that ensure that criminals don’t bring them in.”
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey also filed a statement in committee, saying the bill could affect scheduling and other facets of sporting events.
“Given the intense atmosphere surrounding athletic events, adding weapons increases safety concerns and could negatively impact the intercollegiate athletics program at the University of Arkansas in several ways, including scheduling, officiating, recruiting and attendance,” Sankey said in a statement. “HB 1249 creates concerns for the Southeastern Conference and its member institutions. It remains our collective desire to provide a safe environment for student-athletes, coaches, officials and fans, and will continue to closely monitor the status of this legislation.
Before today’s debate on the House floor, Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson issued the following statement regarding the concealed carry legislation.
“Given that both the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Arkansas State University are members of the Sun Belt Conference – and as my colleague Greg Sankey of the Southeastern Conference has stated – I too support the Arkansas State Senate’s exemption in SB 724 that would prevent firearms from being allowed inside publicly funded stadiums and arenas in the State of Arkansas,” Benson said.
Dismang’s bill will now go to the governor’s desk, where it will add the provisions to Act 562 nearly 10 days after it was enacted into law. Collins’ proposal, which he worked on for nearly five years, had expanded the public places where concealed carry permit holders can carry a firearm, including universities and the State Capitol, as long as they take an additional eight hours of active shooter training.
That original legislation took a meandering path to passage after it originally would merely allow permitted faculty and staff to carry a concealed firearm on a college campus. But infighting among Republican senators, all avowed gun rights’ advocates, led to fierce debate and at least a half-dozen amendments in committee and on the Senate floor over the training component.
The effective date of the new law is Sept. 1, 2017, but the State Police Department has 120 days to work out the details and design of the enhanced training program. Arkansas State Police Chief William Bryant, who has said there are nearly 221,000 concealed carry gun owners in Arkansas, said he will work with public and private partners to design and promulgate new rules for the enhanced concealed carry program by Jan. 1, 2018.