Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday (Aug. 7) he was open to backing limited “red flag” legislation to expand background checks for Arkansas gun sales and reiterated his support for hate crime and death penalty measures to deal with the growing threat of white supremacy and domestic terrorism following recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.
In a wide-ranging “pen-and-pad” reporters-only interview session at the State Capitol, Hutchinson answered questions on how he would respond as governor to several hot-button debates related to the back-to-back mass shootings over the weekend that left 31 dead and dozens injured and maimed.
Concerning the growing bipartisan movement in several states and Washington, D.C. to adopt various reform laws to monitor and take away guns from dangerous people, Hutchinson said he has reviewed such proposed legislation in Arkansas and other states that lacked desired constitutional protections and needed more vetting by state lawmakers.
“And so, that’s where I am struggling right now. Yes, whenever we know of somebody that has a massive amount of firearms and they are posting on the internet that they want to go and kill somebody and commit mass murder and they might have more specific information, absolutely, we need to have the capacity to stop that horrific crime,” said Hutchinson. “But I don’t think we’ve arrived at the right balance yet. I haven’t seen a law and I haven’t come up with an idea yet of how we can have an extreme risk protection order in place and yet sufficient due process at the same time.”
Hutchinson mentioned a “red flag” bill sponsored by Arkansas Democrats in the 2019 legislation session that died in a Senate committee.
“I am going to continue to look for that, listen to others about that, but I don’t think as whole across the country we arrived at a good balance,” said Hutchinson, adding that there should be a higher-level of proof and threat risk for potential violence and more than probable cause for arrest. “And I am not indicating that I am going to be bringing forth as part of my legislative agenda in the next legislative session a risk protection law.”
HATE CRIME BILL
Pivoting to hate crimes, Hutchinson specifically mentioned legislation he spoke about at the Arkansas Sheriffs Association meeting on Tuesday in Rogers in the wake of the weekend shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. That proposed measure, he said, calls for stronger punishment in Arkansas for people convicted of crimes that target others because of race, ethnicity or religion.
“There needs to be outspoken leaders that denounce white supremacy. I think that has not been clear enough and so that is one of the reasons I have been specific in articulating that – not just what we’ve seen in El Paso but I understand there is a concern here in Arkansas,” said Hutchinson. “I think that leaders speaking out against it gives confidence to minority groups that white supremacy is not reflective of the attitude or the culture of Arkansas.”
Although enhanced hate crime legislation was filed in recent legislative sessions in Arkansas, Hutchinson told the gaggle of reporters squeezed into his State Capitol office he has received new drafts of hate crime bills from the Anti-Defamation League that his staff is studying. He said he plans to soon circulate a version to state lawmakers to hopefully build a consensus of support.
“We will circulate that to have comment on it,” said Hutchinson. “I think with that vetting process, we will make sure that we come up with the right solution and one that not only meets national peer review, but also fits with what we want in Arkansas and any uniqueness here.”
Hutchinson said he remains unsure of the timeline to introduce such legislation, or if it can wait until the 93rd General Assembly convenes in January 2021. Arkansas lawmakers will also gather in Little Rock for the upcoming fiscal session in April 2020 to consider general appropriation bills to keep the lights on in between the regular sessions every two years.
Although the main purpose of fiscal sessions is to approve budgets for state agencies, there is a mechanism for considering non-budget bills such as hate crime legislation. The first step is for sponsors to introduce a resolution on the first day of the fiscal session to authorize the filing of a non-appropriation bill. The resolution states the purpose of the non-budget bill, and it must be passed by a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate.
“Once we know we have sufficient (support) to get that passed, then we will make a decision on what we need to do next,” he said.
The popular Republican governor ended his unscheduled back-and-forth with reporters by stating that he remained committed to the state’s three-drug execution protocol following the Trump administration’s recent decision to restart the federal death penalty for the first time since 2003. On July 25, U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to adopt a new one-drug protocol to immediately schedule the executions of five death-row inmates convicted of murder and other heinous crimes.
On Dec. 9, 2019, Arkansas white supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee is expected to be the first of five lethal injections under the new schedule. Lee was convicted in 1999 by a federal jury in Little Rock of the infamous murder a family of three in Tilly, Ark., after robbing and shooting them and then throwing their bodies in the Illinois River bayou.
The new federal protocol also puts the spotlight back on Arkansas’ efforts to retool and restart executions under Hutchinson. Arkansas received national attention in the summer of 2017 after the governor set execution dates two at a time for eight inmates over an 11-day period before the state’s supply of the lethal injection drug midazolam expired.
Eventually, four Arkansas inmates died of lethal injections, three executions were stayed, and one death row prisoner was granted clemency by the governor. In the recent 2019 legislative session, a new law was passed by the 92nd General Assembly that would further veil the confidentiality of lethal drugs used in Arkansas executions.
Hutchinson told reporters he has not received letters from state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge that there are any inmates in Arkansas who have exhausted their death row appeals.
“When that happens, that will trigger the search of availability of drugs to carry out that (my) responsibility,” he said.
Noting the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Hutchinson said it was his personal view that the rise in white supremacy-related mass murders justifies the use of the death penalty to deter such acts.
“I think this will signal that the death penalty is still available for those types of heinous crimes …,” said the former U.S. Attorney.
Hutchinson said he also believes the restart of federal executions will make it easier for Arkansas correction officials to get access to a new supply of midazolam, the controversial sedative that is part of the state’s three-drug cocktail. He said he once any new death row inmates are referred to his office for execution in the future, then the state will begin a new search for such drugs to carry out lethal injections.
Appearing with the state’s Chief Transformation Officer Amy Fecher, Hutchinson originally called the random media availability with reporters to provide an update on the state’s effort to streamline 42 agencies into 15 cabinet-level departments run by state secretaries that report directly to him. He reiterated that the state is on schedule to meet or exceed the $15 million in savings by fiscal 2021 projected by state Arkansas budget forecasters.
Hutchinson also answered a barrage of questions on numerous other subjects, ranging from recent federal court rulings on the state’s Medicaid expansion program and his administration’s efforts to attract private investment to 85 Opportunity Zones across the state to the impact of the Trump administration’s ongoing trade war with China on Arkansas’ agriculture and manufacturing industries.