The Greatest Untold Story of the 89th General Assembly

April 23, 2013  25 Comments

gun billYou haven’t read about this story in the mainstream media. It wasn’t reported during the legislative session, and perhaps it would never have been reported if it weren’t for The Arkansas Project and the folks at Arkansas Carry. But what you are about to read is the story of what may be the most significant (pro-liberty) accomplishment of the 89th General Assembly.

In late February, the legislature considered HB1408, a bill that would have legalized carrying a firearm openly in Arkansas. The bill was defeated after spokesmen for the state police testified against the bill (I chronicled these events here, in our most-read story of the session). Lovers of liberty were dismayed to see the first Republican majority in 138 years balk at upholding constitutional rights. A Twitter war ensued between the Speaker of the House and gun rights advocates; Second Amendment advocates began muttering about primaries against those who defeated the bill. But while all of that was going on, legislators were working behind the scenes to push through a bill that would accomplish essentially the same purpose — legalized unlicensed carry in Arkansas.

The bill, HB1700, actually made it out of committee, through both chambers, and was signed by the governor. It is now Act 746. Perhaps some legislators did not know what they were voting on; perhaps many of them will not know until they read this article.

Act 746 makes two significant changes to gun laws in Arkansas. The first is perhaps the most significant. Under Arkansas law, Arkansans are allowed to carry a firearm unobstructed, without a license, while on a “journey.” Some gun advocates have long said that because of this law, open, unlicensed carry has always been legal in Arkansas. I know folks who have carried a firearm — concealed — without a license under this statute. Since a “journey” was never defined in the law, you could travel wherever you liked and if you were stopped by law enforcement, you could always say, “Well, I’m on a journey.” Other laws, such as the concealed carry statute, suggested that this interpretation of the journey law is incomplete at best. However, Act 746 puts that argument to rest by defining, for the first time, what a journey actually is.Under this act, the scope of a journey is defined as extending “beyond the county in which the person lives.” If you travel outside of your county of residence in Arkansas, you can now legally carry a firearm without a license. Needless to say, this is big news.

The second big change brought about by Act 746 is in regard to criminal intent. Under previous Arkansas law, prosecutors who wanted to prove criminal possession only had to meet a minimal requirement: they were only required to demonstrate that a person in possession of a gun intended to use it against a person. The revision in Act 746 requires that prosecutors demonstrate a gun owner intended to use their firearm against a person “unlawfully.” This clarification is important because it appears to give immunity to those who would use their firearm against a person in self-defense. Previously, this kind of gun possessor would remain vulnerable to prosecution under the law.

Nicholas Stehle of Arkansas Carry said his group was surprised by the bill:

We were caught by surprise with HB1700. We understand that it was fully vetted by the Arkansas State Police and the sheriffs and prosecutors in Arkansas. Though it doesn’t take effect until sometime in July, we believe it will have the practical effect of legalizing the carry of firearms for self-defense purposes in Arkansas. 

The bill also contains a definition of the word “journey”, which is now defined as leaving your county. Therefore, a person would be able to carry under this law, in plain view or concealed, if they leave their home county.

Additionally, Stehle reminded Arkansans that there are still places in the state where it is illegal to carry a firearm:

There are some prohibited places under this law. While it isn’t attached to the concealed handgun license prohibited places, there are other places in state law where carrying a firearm is prohibited. Such places include posted places (places with signs), federal gun free school zones, other school campuses, the State Capitol grounds, airports, school bus stops, and possibly others.

We encourage people to consult with their attorneys before carrying a firearm openly or concealed under this law. It is brand new, and to our knowledge it hasn’t been tested. Again – it doesn’t take effect until this summer. We will watch closely for violations of citizens’ rights under this Act.

It is remarkable that this bill made it all the way through the legislature without any serious opposition or media attention. It got 28 out of 35 votes in the Senate and did not garner a single dissenting vote. In the House, it earned over 80% support with only one dissenting vote. Now that the bill has become law — and now that we’re openly describing the fundamental changes it creates — it will surely receive more media attention. Legislators may even come under public pressure to repeal the law when they reconvene briefly in May. But perhaps we’ve gotten a rare, candid look at the new conservative policies we might see coming through the legislature without undue pressure from the governor, the mainstream media, and outside interest groups (Arkansas Carry, a pro-gun rights advocacy group, wasn’t even involved in its passage). Perhaps this entire saga could serve as a case study for what types of pro-liberty policies we could see in a world where legislators’ primary interest is passing good legislation that upholds our Constitution, independent of outside influence.

In addition, I hope this story in particular serves as a reminder to each one of you reading that The Arkansas Project is a must-read policy blog (if I do say so myself). You’ve gotten (and will continue to get) news and analysis here that you simply cannot find anywhere else. Thank you all for your continued readership and support. We have a lot of work left to do for liberty in Arkansas.

Coming soon: an analysis of the “private option” fallout and where we go from here.