From time to time, Gov. Asa Hutchinson invites reporters into his home or office for a “pen and pad” session that is different from a full-fledged news conference only in the lesser formality.
I’ve attended two of these events because of their timeliness in regard to major news.
The first was when the governor prepared to set a world land-speed record for lethal injections, scheduling eight executions in 11 days because the state’s poison supply was about to hit its expiration date. Only four executions got carried out, owing to the courts.
The second was last week when the governor’s office said the topic would be a one-month report on the new reorganization of state government.
But everyone knew that would be the least of what would be discussed.
The real topic once we piled into the governor’s office—and as soon as the governor quit droning about such scintillating efficiencies as the State Police’s auto shop now servicing all Public Safety Department vehicles—would be issues newly raging from mass shootings.
This was the first question: What about a “red flag law” in Arkansas by which parties could petition a court to order temporary seizure of a person’s gun or guns on the basis of a threat that person posed to himself or others?
As we spoke, even U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham was signing on to a bipartisan bill to set up a system of federal grants to states to help with such laws.
Hyper-conservatives such as Tom Cotton were indicating a receptiveness to such laws.
That was primarily because conservatives preferred a lesser fallback position to real control of gun sales or gun manufacture. The NRA isn’t as vehemently opposed—just everyday resistant—to red-flag laws. There’s an NRA wink in play on red-flag laws, it appears.
Hutchinson has moderate days. He had just come from one when he embraced a hate-crime law.
But he was not having one of those days on a red-flag law.
It’s not that Asa’s logical, linear reasoning on the red-flag issue wasn’t sound. The problem, he said, is due process. It’s the standard of proof. It’s potential abuse.
I get that.
Under state Sen. Greg Leding’s red-flag bill last session, Asa believed that a conniving spouse or relative could tell two police officers that their family member posed a threat to himself or them or others, and that most any policeman would be sensitive to that and sign an affidavit for a judge, who also would be sensitive to it.
The governor said there may be a need for such a law. He said there may be a way to write one that is fair and workable. But he said he hadn’t yet seen it.
The good thing, he said, is that such laws are now being contemplated in many of the 33 states without them, and that we can monitor developments nationwide in search of an Arkansas application.
Fine. I was with him, even to the extent of siding more with his concern for details than with Moms Demand Action, which thought he was being obstructive in the last session and that Leding’s bill was fine.
To me it’s more legally sound to ban certain types of assault weaponry than to try to pick out people who can’t have any weaponry at all.
But then, it’s hard to argue that there shouldn’t exist a clear legal method to remove weapons from persons with dementia, mental disorder or recent episodes of demonstrably threatening behavior.
Hutchinson said, yes, certainly, it is desirable to be able to disarm someone who has been caught making criminal threats online.
Red-flag laws, so far, seem to have reduced suicides more than anything else. And that’s surely worthwhile in itself.
So, here’s the problem: I told the governor he sounded passive on the issue. I wondered if he might instead become more active and make a red-flag law a legislative priority of his administration, thus deploying the power, prestige and expertise of his office to write a bill he’d find acceptable.
He practically recoiled.
Oh, no, he said. It’s certainly not something he’s going to take the lead on, he emphasized, as if there would be something wrong with the governor seeing a need and meeting it, and seeing a complication and tackling it.
The old maxim is that “the governor proposes and the Legislature disposes.” But that’s not so if the governor seems politically afraid of this headline: “Hutchinson says ‘red-flag’ law a priority for next session.”
He took the lead regarding a hate-crime bill, and good for him. That a few more state cars are getting their oil changed by the State Police mechanic—he’ll claim that for sure.
But here he seems to leave the matter to Leding, the Democrat. The Republican Legislature will have license to balk.
Asa’s moderate days and conservative days—alas, they vary.
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JohnBrummett,whosecolumnappearsregularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a memberoftheArkansasWriters’HallofFame. Emailhimatjbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.