As Republicans increasingly back proposals to allow the temporary seizure of firearms from dangerous people, the idea is unlikely to appear on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's legislative agenda for the next three years, he told reporters Wednesday, while also not discounting it entirely.
So-called red flag laws have been implemented in 17 states, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates for gun control. All but two of the states with such laws in place have Democratic-majority legislatures. The Arkansas Legislature is Republican-majority.
Until now, Republicans, including Hutchinson, have largely remained skeptical of such laws, citing concerns about the due process legal rights of people whose guns would be seized.
But back-to-back mass shootings over the weekend in Texas and Ohio have prompted a swell of support among national Republicans seeking to take action against such massacres.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., proposed legislation to open up federal funding to states that pass red flag laws. President Donald Trump said he was calling for legislation that would allow guns to be "taken through rapid due process."
Arkansas' junior U.S. senator, Republican Tom Cotton, who was interviewed by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporters and editors Wednesday afternoon, said states should consider such laws and make sure they are "consistent with due process and the Second Amendment."
Hutchinson, in a separate meeting in the morning with local reporters at his Capitol office, said the onus would be on the state's lawmakers to come up with workable legislation before the next regular legislative session in 2021.
"I am not indicating that I am going to be bringing forth, as part of my agenda in the next legislative session, a risk-protection law," Hutchinson said. "That's not part of my agenda. But I am following the national debate as well as our state discussions closely. While this happened in Texas most recently, it could happen in Arkansas. And so my statement is, I continue to study it, I continue to listen to the experts, but I have not come up with a solution that I would propose."
The governor said he preferred the term "extreme risk protection orders" rather than "red flag" law to describe a policy through which a judge could sign an order to temporarily seize a person's guns if a sufficient burden of proof is met to show that the person is a potential threat to himself or someone else.
An insistence on a strict burden of proof, however, could doom the prospects of any red flag proposal, especially if a large number of state Republican lawmakers continue to withhold their support.
A bill sponsored earlier this year by state Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, would have required that two law enforcement officers swear in an affidavit presented to a judge that probable cause exists to issue such an order. That law included a higher burden of proof in an attempt to get the governor's support, Leding said Wednesday. In doing so, Leding said, the bill lost the support of a prominent gun control advocacy group.
"I looked at it, and I did not believe it had sufficient constitutional protections in there. I think we've got to do more work on this," Hutchinson said, referring to Leding's bill. He later added, "I think there has to be more than probable cause."
Eve Jorgensen, the state chapter president for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, confirmed that her group pulled its support for Leding's bill as a result of it having proposed tougher standards for the seizure of guns than what exists in other states.
"We didn't feel it had enough in it to give the bill what it needed to be effective," Jorgensen said.
In Florida, after the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Republicans in control of that state's government passed a red flag law that allows seized guns to be held for 14 days before a hearing is scheduled over whether a longer confiscation is needed. Jorgensen pointed to that law as a good model for legislation. Leding's bill would have required a similar hearing within three days.
Hutchinson signaled an openness toward red flag legislation last year, but some other Arkansas Republicans have remained steadfastly opposed.
State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, a former staff member for Cotton and a vocal opponent of Leding's legislation, said Wednesday that he would remain vocally opposed to any iteration of such a law. He said he had not had recent discussions with other Republican colleagues to gauge their thoughts on the issue.
"Instead of red flag laws, we need to look at involuntary commitment," Garner said. (Federal and state laws prohibit people who have been involuntary committed to a mental institution from having firearms.)
At the federal level, Cotton said he was "eager to see" the legislation offered by Graham and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to provide state grants toward encouraging red flag laws.
Cotton said such proposals should target those who fit the profile of a mass shooter, which he described as "angry, alienated, isolated young men oftentimes who have gotten radicalized in anonymous Internet chat rooms and message boards."
Asked to address the United States' statistically higher rates of gun deaths compared with other developed nations, Cotton pointed to constitutional protections that freely allow citizens to own firearms and to spread viewpoints along the Internet that promote hate.
"I'm not proposing that we should regulate that or that we should change the First Amendment anymore than we should change the Second Amendment," Cotton said. "But [it's] something that we could consider, in the context of the reforms I've talked about. Evidence that people are not just, you know, threatening their classmates and their co-worker, but also being radicalized on the Internet, whether it's in an ISIS chat room or a white nationalist chat room."
Among all states, Arkansas ranks seventh in the number of people killed by firearms -- including suicides, homicides and accidental deaths -- per capita, according to an investigation by the Democrat-Gazette that was published last year.
The investigation also found that fewer people were killed by guns in states that had passed red flag laws and other gun control measures, such as universal background checks and waiting periods. None of the five laws examined by the Democrat-Gazette have been enacted by the Legislature.
Information for this article was contributed by Hunter Field, David Barham, Karen Martin, Yutao Chen and Alyson Hoge of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 08/08/2019
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