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Legislators work late to pass gun bill

After wee-hours session, assembly adjourns til fall by Michael R. Wickline, Neal Earley, Rachel Herzog | April 28, 2021 at 7:29 a.m.
Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, left, R-Hermitage, talks with House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd, middle, R- El Dorado, and Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, Tuesday April 27, 2021 in the House Chamber at the state Capitol before the vote on House Bill 1957 concerning enforcement of federal gun laws. More photos at arkansasonline.com/428leg/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

The Arkansas Legislature spent its last full day Tuesday focused on choosing a compromise bill that would bar state and local law enforcement officers from enforcing certain future federal gun laws, and then wrapped up action on the selected measure in the hour after midnight.

Lawmakers spent the day debating which path to take -- whether the House should override Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto of a Senate bill on federal gun laws or approve one of two potential compromises filed in response.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

Gallery: Arkansas Legislature

They settled on House Bill 1957 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, which was introduced Monday. The House approved the bill 75-19 Tuesday afternoon and then recessed. HB1957 went to the Senate, which amended the bill and then also recessed for the day.

Because, under the state constitution, both houses of the Legislature can't approve a bill on the same day, and since many lawmakers were eager to get home, the 35-member Senate reconvened at 12:01 a.m. today to consider and approve HB1957 by a vote of 26-6, with two members not voting and one voting present.

The 100-member House reconvened after that, held two committee meetings, and then concurred with the bill's amendment by a vote of 79-20. The bill now goes to Hutchinson, who said he will sign it.

"All this does, the amendment from the Senate, makes our bill a little bit stronger and clearer," Wardlaw told representatives.

The amendment to the bill changed the location of some language and added 33 House co-sponsors and 10 Senate co-sponsors. The original bill listed 17 representatives and four senators.

The House was asked unexpectedly to also consider Senate Bill 699 by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, that would require the secretary of state's office to create electronic campaign finance report forms and make them searchable. The bill was approved 81-9. The House adjourned shortly after 1 a.m.

Lawmakers, on the 108th day of a regular session that began Jan. 11, immediately recessed the session. Barring the unexpected, they plan to reconvene in the fall to tackle congressional redistricting.

HB1957 is meant as a preemptive move by Republican lawmakers against future gun control measures that they fear will be proposed by the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden.

"We have seen many unprecedented actions by the federal government that have left many of our citizens turning to us, as the elected officials of Arkansas, as their line of defense against an overreaching federal government," Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who handled HB1957 in the Senate, told her fellow senators. "We are a country based on freedoms and when our freedoms are threatened, we must take action through the tools within our U.S. Constitution and our Arkansas Constitution to protect these cherished freedoms."

SOVEREIGNTY ACT

If enacted, HB1957 would be called the "Arkansas Sovereignty Act of 2021."

It was introduced because on Friday, Hutchinson vetoed an earlier gun bill, Senate Bill 298 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch. The governor cited concerns over the bill's impact on criminal cases. The Senate overrode the governor's veto of SB298 on Monday.

Under HB1957, "All acts, laws, orders, rules and regulations of the United States Government that were enacted on or after January 1, 2021, that infringe on the people's right to bear to arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and Arkansas Constitution, Article 2, Section 5, are invalid in this state, shall not be recognized by this state, are specifically rejected by this state, and shall be considered null and void and of no effect in this state."

A federal ban that would be null and void in this state under the bill includes: "Any tax, levy, fee or stamp imposed on firearms, firearm accessories or ammunition not common to all other goods and services that could have a chilling effect on the purchase or ownership of those items by law-abiding citizens that was enacted after January 1, 2021."

HB1957 also states that it would apply to "Any Act ordering the confiscation of firearms, firearm accessories or ammunition from law-abiding citizens."

Future federal laws that would be "null and void" under HB1957 also would include required registration of firearms or gun owners or the banning of certain firearms, firearm accessories or ammunition.

The bill has no emergency clause, so it will take effect 90 days from now.

"Yes, I will sign HB1957," Hutchinson said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "It is tough and sends a message that we will protect the Second Amendment in Arkansas, but it supports law enforcement and will not jeopardize our critical partnerships in public safety."

The governor's veto of SB298 sent lawmakers scrambling, as they debated whether to override Hutchinson's veto, write a new compromise bill or both.

Even though the Senate voted to override the governor's veto Monday, lawmakers worked on a new bill intended to ease concerns that some had.

After working late into the evening Monday, HB1957 is what legislative leaders settled on.

Meanwhile, Stubblefield had a new proposal, Senate Bill 717, which he advanced out of the Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committee to the Senate floor Tuesday. However, he didn't ask the Senate to take action on the bill.

IN COMMITTEE

Less than 12 hours after HB1957 was filed late Monday night, the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee began discussing the proposal.

"It only affects everything from the Biden administration forward," Wardlaw said. "Nothing in the present, nothing in the past."

Among the main concerns lawmakers had was the effect the bill could have on police in Arkansas. The bill states that law enforcement officers who work to enforce federal laws deemed "null and void" by the bill could be "subject to being decertified as a law enforcement officer."

Elected leaders, such as sheriffs or prosecuting attorneys, who violated HB1957 could be subject to being charged with an "unclassified misdemeanor."

In committee, Wardlaw defended the bill both from lawmakers who worried that it could hurt police investigations and others who thought the bill didn't go far enough.

Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, said he supported the spirit of the bill but was worried about the effect it could have on law enforcement.

"The last thing we need to do is not back our law enforcement," Jean said. "We got the defund the police far on the left and then we start pushing them with criminals and penalties on the right -- who's going to want to be a law enforcement officer anymore?"

Wardlaw defended the penalties in the bill for law enforcement officers who work with federal authorities on "null and void" federal gun laws, saying the bill needed some kind of penalty for those who violate it.

"We needed some teeth in this bill to make sure these people don't cooperate with federal law enforcement officers in anything from Jan. 1 forward," Wardlaw said.

While SB298, the vetoed bill, had a $500 penalty for law enforcement officials who cooperated with federal gun investigations, the fine was taken out because it would be a criminal penalty, meaning police could lose their qualified immunity status if they were found guilty, Wardlaw said.

"There is nothing that I care about more -- other than my family, God and Jesus -- than my guns," Wardlaw told the committee as to why he sponsored the bill.

The committee approved the bill Tuesday morning, then it was taken up on the House floor Tuesday for a discussion and a vote.

Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, said the bill could give people the false impression that federal gun laws won't apply in Arkansas, while other lawmakers replied that the bill only applies to law enforcement.

Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, likened the bill to how states such as Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana, even though it's still illegal under federal law.

VETO SURPRISE

For many lawmakers, it was a surprise to find themselves reworking a proposal that had been the topic of a bill that easily passed in both chambers weeks ago.

While House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, earlier told lawmakers that he expected the House to recess Tuesday, Hutchinson's veto of SB298 put lawmakers in a bind.

SB298 specifically declared "null and void" the National Firearms Act, which regulates machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, and the Gun Control Act of 1968, which prohibits certain felons from owning firearms.

That provision worried Hutchinson, the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association and Cody Hiland, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas who told lawmakers that the Senate bill could interfere with ongoing criminal cases in which local and federal law enforcement cooperation is key.

Often prosecutors send cases that involve gun charges to federal court, where penalties for such offenses can be stiffer.

Under SB298, local law enforcement would have not been able to assist in those investigations, prompting the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association to send a letter to lawmakers Friday urging them to not override Hutchinson's veto of SB298.

"It's a defense attorney's dream law," Hutchinson said of SB298. "They're going to have plenty of opportunities to challenge the charges based upon this."

The bill also could have cost Arkansas about $17.9 million in federal funding a year, Wardlaw said, as a federal tax on guns and ammunition funds goes to states for fish and wildlife preservation. He contended that it would hurt the state Game and Fish Commission.

SB298 could have also jeopardized about 800 federal criminal cases, Wardlaw said.

Wardlaw said HB1957 should allay people's concerns about fish and wildlife funding and ongoing federal gun crimes investigation because the language in the bill only bars Arkansas law enforcement from enforcing certain federal laws enacted after Jan. 1, 2021.

While the Senate debated and then voted Monday to override Hutchinson's veto of SB298, the House voted to postpone that vote and lay the veto override vote on the table Tuesday.

The Senate City County and Local Committee on Tuesday afternoon voted 5-1 to recommend Senate approval of an amended version of HB1957, after discussing the bill for about a dozen minutes.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, dissented. Committee members Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent from Sulphur Springs, and Stubblefield didn't attend the meeting.

Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have introduced similar bills this year seeking to nullify federal gun laws. Several states passed nullification laws under then-President Barack Obama, but judges have found them unconstitutional. So far, Arizona and Montana have enacted similar nullification measures this year, according to The Associated Press.

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