A new act intended to clarify that a license is not required to carry a concealed handgun in Arkansas has left some legal experts at odds over how it will affect the state's gun laws.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, said he sponsored Senate Bill 480 in an attempt to clear up yearslong confusion over whether Arkansas is a permitless carry state.
The legislation, now Act 777, specifies that Arkansas offers concealed carry licenses only to provide residents with the certification they need to carry concealed handguns in states where permits are required, King told the Senate Committee on City, County and Local Affairs in March.
"Basically, it would just say that we are a permitless carry state," he said.
House Majority Leader Marcus Richmond, who presented the bill in the House earlier this month, said the measure was not intended to apply to "enhanced" concealed carry licenses. These licenses, which require applicants to undergo additional training, allow a person to carry concealed handguns in certain sensitive areas including the State Capitol grounds and building, General Assembly meetings, state offices, churches and public universities.
Richmond, of Harvey, said the bill would apply only to a subchapter of state code concerning concealed handguns. He noted that certain statutes addressing areas where "enhanced" licenses are required are located in another subchapter of state law.
"These are two separate places. I know I have colleagues that will disagree with that, but that is OK," he told the House. "I believe we need this bill to pass to provide that clarification out there so that we don't have citizens basically being harassed because there's a misunderstanding of what you can or cannot do."
During a meeting of the House Committee on Judiciary, Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, disagreed with claims that the bill would not apply to "enhanced" licenses, noting that statutes concerning these licenses are included in the subchapter amended by the bill.
Clowney, an attorney, said the legislation would put sections of law into direct conflict with each other.
"We now have two sections of law: One says you're not able to carry in these places without an enhanced license, the other section now says you don't need a license," she said. "If what you're trying to do is clarify, this won't do it."
By further obscuring state law, Clowney raised concerns the bill would make it more difficult for law enforcement officers to determine when a person is legally carrying a handgun.
"I do not know what happens to the metal detectors in the front of our Capitol when this bill says 'this subchapter does not require a person to obtain a license,'" she said.
During an interview Thursday, Clowney also expressed concerns the act would lead to an increase in crime.
"More Arkansans with guns, without training, without licenses and without law enforcement knowing who and who isn't carrying, is only going to lead to more crime in our state," she said.
King said Thursday that while there may be varying interpretations of state code, his act is not supposed to affect "enhanced" licenses.
When asked if he was concerned about how fewer requirements on gun owners might affect gun safety, King said, "I believe in self-protection."
"I believe the Second Amendment is about personal protection, and I can say that legal, law-abiding citizens that want to be able to protect themselves is the most paramount issue we have to deal with," he said.
King said his act builds off a resolution passed by the Arkansas Senate in 2019 intended to clarify the chamber's stance that Arkansas is a constitutional carry state where no permit is required to carry a handgun either unconcealed or concealed. The House passed a similar resolution during the 2019 regular session.
Both resolutions cite Taff v. Arkansas, a case that proponents of constitutional carry contend clarified Arkansas' status as a permitless carry state. In 2018, the Arkansas Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Jamie Taff, a Montgomery County man, on drug charges because police in that instance stopped him only because he was carrying a weapon.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said in an emailed statement Thursday that permitless concealed carry is legal in Arkansas.
"Permitless concealed carry is not specifically prohibited but also is not expressly allowed under Arkansas law," he said.
"Enhanced" concealed carry licenses will still be required to carry concealed handguns in sensitive areas once the act goes into effect, Griffin said.
When asked if the act is effective in clarifying Arkansas' gun laws, Griffin said it is "a step in the right direction, but more work could be done in future sessions to make it easier to understand the law."
"I am committed to working with the governor and legislators to bring clarity to this area of the law," he said.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the bill April 12. When asked about the Republican governor's stance on the legislation, spokesperson Alexa Henning said earlier this month Sanders "strongly supports the Second Amendment. This bill further clarifies that Arkansas is a constitutional carry state."
Matt Durrett, president of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said his organization didn't take an official stance on the bill since prosecutors across the state were split in their interpretations of current gun laws.
"I'm kind of in the middle," said Durrett, when discussing his interpretation of Act 777. "I don't think it's as far-reaching as some think, but I think it's more far-reaching than some would claim."
Durrett, the prosecuting attorney for Washington and Madison counties, said he thought the act would likely affect "enhanced" concealed carry licenses since provisions regarding these licenses are contained in the subchapter that the act will amend. However, he noted that certain parts of state law regarding prohibited areas for carrying concealed handguns fall outside of the subchapter and therefore are unlikely to be affected.
"Even to me, it's hard to break this down and to really see what the total effect of it is. So it's going to be difficult for the average person to," he said. "It was meant to clarify things, and on one point it did, but sometimes when you clarify one particular issue, you create confusion for it in another area. I think that's the concern here."
Durrett said he expected it would be up to courts to interpret the impact of the act.
"I understand the concern that people have that the lessening of regulation on handguns could lead to more violence. I haven't seen evidence one way or the other on that," he said. "It does raise concerns, but lots of things raise concerns for prosecutors."
The Arkansas State Police has not taken a stance on the legislation, said Cindy Murphy, a spokesperson for the agency, in an emailed statement Thursday. In response to questions, Murphy said "enhanced" licenses would still be required to carry concealed handguns in sensitive areas.
Gary Sipes, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police, said the act would help clarify Arkansas' concealed carry laws for police departments.
"It's just good that's being cleared up," he said Thursday.
Sipes noted that under his association's interpretation of the act, "enhanced" licenses would still be required to carry concealed handguns in sensitive areas.
Law school professor and attorney Robert Steinbuch said the act clearly states Arkansans can carry a weapon concealed without having a license. The act would not, however, affect specific provisions related to "enhanced" licenses, he said, since the act makes only a general statement.
"Any specific provision in the law won't be undermined by this general statement," he said. "This general statement only addresses whether one can, I dare say, generally carry concealed without a license. That has never been addressed, incidentally, in the law directly."
Steinbuch has represented plaintiffs in several lawsuits challenging local and state government restrictions on carrying guns. He recognized that even with the passage of Act 777, state gun laws remained complicated.
"We've become slightly less complicated in our gun-carrying laws, but our gun-carrying laws are very challenging," he said.
Steinbuch contended that judges "who don't like guns" have "contorted the law to achieve their own policy preferences" and further complicated matters.
Clowney raised concerns Thursday that the act could have a significant fiscal impact on state police since the agency collects funds by issuing concealed carry permits.
"I think it's really wild that we passed this bill without any acknowledgment of what kind of hit state police revenue will take as a result of eradicating the need for this permit," she said. "This is actually defunding the police in a very real way. This will take funds away from police."
The Arkansas State Police is unaware of how the act will affect its finances, Murphy said in an email Thursday.
Revenue for issuing concealed carry handgun licenses was roughly $1.02 million in fiscal year 2022, $2.12 million in fiscal year 2021 and $1.48 million in fiscal year 2020, according to documentation provided by Murphy.
King said he did not anticipate his act would have a significant impact on state police revenue. If needed, he noted, lawmakers could adjust funding for the agency.
"We have a flexible state budget to be able to address these things," he said.
A bill similar to SB 480 brought by Rep. Matt Duffield, R-Russellville, failed to advance from the House Committee on Judiciary after lawmakers called for a fiscal impact statement.
Act 777 will become law 90 days after the Legislature adjourns sine die Monday, which means its effective date will be later this summer.