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27-7 Arkansas Senate vote approves stand-ground legislation; 1 Democrat joins GOP in support

by John Moritz | January 20, 2021 at 7:10 a.m.
FILE — Sen. Bob Ballinger is shown in this file photo.

A bill to eliminate the "duty to retreat" provision of Arkansas' self-defense laws passed the state Senate on Tuesday, with one Democrat joining most of the chamber's Republicans in support of the legislation.

The Senate voted 27-7 in favor of Senate Bill 24, and its passage Tuesday was widely expected after the bill cleared a committee last week where similar legislation had been blocked two years ago.

Both supporters and opponents of the legislation have dubbed it as the "stand-your-ground' law, using the language of the National Rifle Association, which has advocated on behalf of SB24 and similar legislation in other states.

The sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, argued that Arkansas' current self-defense laws are "ambiguous" because they require people to retreat, if they can do so safely, before using deadly force to defend themselves.

"This is not a license to kill," Ballinger said. "This does not give you the ability to shoot first and answer questions later, this is the same policy that is in place in the majority of other states."

Opponents of the bill have argued that a change to the current law is unnecessary and merely would make it easier for shooters to get away with unjustified killings.

Prosecutors opposed Ballinger's version of a stand-your-ground bill in 2019, but have pledged to remain neutral this year.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, spoke against the bill Tuesday, pointing to statistics showing that stand-your-ground defenses in Florida were more successful when the victim was Black.

"In almost all these cases of 'stand your ground,' it's been a white person with a gun, and a Black person at the other end of that gun," said Elliott, who is Black. "The facts show that a person who looks like me has a reason to be concerned."

Other Democrats who spoke against the bill argued that the proposal could result in more violence in raucous protests, or against disabled people. Republicans have disputed the accuracy of the statistics raised by opponents, and pointed to declining crime rates in states that have passed stand-your-ground laws.

One member of each party switched sides in the mostly party-line vote: Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, voted for SB24, while Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, voted against it.

Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, spoke for the bill, telling the Senate that he had once been shot and injured during a mugging in North Carolina. After struggling with his attacker, Garner said he attempted to grab the man's gun and would have shot him if he did. Garner told the same story to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019, at which time prosecutors argued that Arkansas' current law would have been enough to justify self-defense in Garner's example.

"That life or death situation when someone's standing there in front of you, you don't think about, 'Can I run or retreat,'" Garner said. "You don't think about what is the current law or code section, you don't think about case laws or prosecutors, you think about what am I going to do in this moment to make it home to family."

After the bill passed the Senate, Ballinger said it could be heard as soon as Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee, but he said it is more likely to be heard next week.

"This is going to pass with a supermajority," Ballinger said of the bill's prospects in the House, which is also controlled by Republicans.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has yet to say whether he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk. Hendren, the lone Republican to oppose the bill in the Senate, is the governor's nephew.

In a statement released by his office Tuesday, the governor said he will "continue following the debate" as SB24 is considered by the House.

Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol that she supports SB24.

"I have visited with the prosecutors about it to make certain that they were comfortable with the language," she said. "I think we, first and foremost, want to protect our Second Amendment rights, but we also want to make sure that there is not loopholes in the language that would allow criminal defendants and defense attorneys to take advantage of those loopholes, to get bad actors who hurt people off the hook."

The bill also has garnered opposition from the right. Hutchinson's opponent in the Republican primaries for governor two years ago, Jan Morgan, spoke against the bill in committee last week and asked the bill's sponsors to remove language stating that a person must be "lawfully present in the location" before they can use deadly force in self-defense. Morgan argued that the change was necessary to preempt further restrictions on carrying firearms that she expected under President-elect Joe Biden's administration.

"What is lawful today in America may not be lawful a month from now," Morgan said then.

However, Ballinger said Tuesday that he had no plans to amend the bill after it passed the Senate. Doing so would risk having prosecutors abandon their neutral position and oppose the bill, he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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