Despite national head winds that helped elect gun-control advocates to Congress this year, some Republican state legislators in Arkansas plan to file bills to expand the rights of gun owners next year.
Meanwhile, some Democrats in the state think there is momentum for passage of a so-called red-flag law that would allow for the temporary seizure of weapons from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
Among the first bills to be filed ahead of the 2019 regular legislative session, which starts Jan. 14, was legislation to proclaim the shotgun as the state gun.
Other bills in the works, according to several Republican lawmakers, would expedite the process for domestic-abuse victims to get concealed-carry licenses, strengthen carry laws at the city and county level, and reduce concealed-carry license fees.
With both parties holding the same number of legislative seats as they did in the 2017 session, however, neither side said the political ground had shifted. The 100-member House will have 76 Republicans and 24 Democrats. The 35-member Senate will have 26 Republicans and 9 Democrats.
Two years ago, the legislative fight over guns focused on a bill to expand concealed-carry rights onto college campuses and into bars and other public buildings.
The passage of that legislation, Act 562 of 2017, prompted an outcry from Democrats and gun-control advocates, who accused lawmakers of ignoring the concerns raised by colleges and law enforcement officials. Shortly after the bill was passed, legislators were pressured by college athletic associations to walk back some provisions.
Last month, the sponsor of Act 562, Republican state Rep. Charlie Collins, lost his Fayetteville-area seat to Democrat Denise Garner of Fayetteville, who touted her support for gun-control efforts.
But Collins did not attribute his loss to voters having soured on his pro-gun position.
"You benefit sometimes from the mood of the country," said Collins, who was first elected in 2010, a strong year generally for Republicans. "Sometimes the wind is blowing in the other direction."
Nationally, Democratic candidates -- many of whom supported increased restrictions on guns -- won control of the U.S. House last month, after repeated mass shootings across the country kept the issue in the news. In Arkansas, 28 people were injured when gunfire broke out at a packed Little Rock nightclub in July 2017, though no one was killed.
"We definitely saw the strongest support for stricter gun legislation that we have seen in our 20-year history," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who conducts the school's annual Arkansas Poll.
But Parry also cautioned that the university's polling this year over-sampled Arkansans with college degrees, possibly skewing results. And regardless, she said, Republican advantages in legislative districts over the years have resulted in legislation that does not closely track with trends in public opinion toward gun control.
CONCEALED, OPEN CARRY
Republicans looking to make changes to the state's gun laws will likely focus on expanding the scope of the concealed-carry licenses, several GOP lawmakers said in interviews this month.
State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, sponsor of the bill to make the shotgun the state gun, said he would also explore legislation to clarify that holders of an "enhanced" concealed-carry license will be allowed to carry weapons in public buildings.
Some cities and municipalities "seem to be misunderstanding" Act 562, which created the enhanced-carry program, Garner said. The senator also said he planned to file legislation that would expedite the process for obtaining a concealed-carry license.
Another bill already filed ahead of the 2019 session would cut the base fee of obtaining a concealed-carry license in half, from $100 to $50. That legislation is sponsored by Garner and state Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville.
Republicans could also resurrect the debate regarding permitless open carry, which was a subject of controversy during the 2017 session. Some conservatives had argued that a 2013 law regarding handgun possession makes it legal for anyone to carry a handgun in the open regardless of their concealed-carry status.
Faced with a gun-range-owning primary opponent who challenged the governor's gun-rights credentials, Gov. Asa Hutchinson in December 2017 issued a memo to the Arkansas State Police stating that open carry is legal in Arkansas, though not all of the state's district attorneys have reached the same conclusion.
"I would not be surprised" if someone filed legislation to clarify that Arkansas is an open-carry state, said state Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, who was elected to the state Senate in November.
Collins said he had not spoken with any of his remaining colleagues in the Legislature to offer advice regarding gun legislation.
One difference that sponsors of gun-related legislation will face in 2019 will be the path their bills take through the Senate.
A new Senate rule directs most bills dealing with alcohol, marijuana and firearms to the Senate Committee on City, County and Local Affairs. Gun bills had previously gone through the Judiciary Committee.
The change was made to even the workload among several committees.
Atop the list of gun policy priorities for Democrats is legislation that would create an extreme-risk order of protection -- commonly known as a "red flag" law -- that would allow a judge to issue an order to temporarily seize a person's firearms if the person is deemed to be a threat to himself or others.
At least 13 states have red flag legislation, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. In Arkansas, draft language for a bill is being completed by Democratic state Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, and state Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville. (Leding will serve in the Senate starting in January.)
In June, an investigation by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found that the Natural State had one of the highest rates of gun deaths in the nation over a nearly 20-year period and that rates were lower in states that had enacted red flag laws and other gun-control measures.
The same month the article was published, Hutchinson said he would be "open" to the possibility of enacting red flag laws.
Asked again in November about his support for such a bill, Hutchinson said he had not seen any legislation that met his standards for due process.
That apparently included the legislation Bond and Leding planned to introduce. Asked about the governor's comments, Leding said he'd shared a draft of the proposal with the governor's staff.
"They should have at least an idea" of what the bill included, he said.
Other laws examined by the newspaper for its June article -- an expansion of background checks, safe storage requirements, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms, and waiting periods -- do not appear to be on the agenda of gun-control proponents for the 2019 session.
"We know that our focus is going to have to be on fighting back bills, the types of bills that allow guns everywhere all the time," said Eve Jorgensen, the head of the Arkansas chapter of Moms Demand Action.
Since the group's first legislative session in 2017, Moms Demand Action has grown from two subchapters in Little Rock and Conway to a dozen chapters across the state, with more than 1,000 members, Jorgensen said.
The founder of a chapter in Northwest Arkansas, Nicole Clowney, was elected to a Fayetteville-based seat in the state House of Representatives in November. She said her legislative plan was to pass gun laws that "reflect reality."
Clowney declined to discuss specific bills yet, but said that legislation proposed by her or other gun-control advocates would not fit stereotypes peddled by gun-rights groups that Democrats plan to "take guns away."
"Folks are starting to vote with gun safety at the top of the list," Clowney said. "That's the shift."
A Section on 12/28/2018
Print Headline: Arkansas legislators plan bills to expand rights of gun owners in state