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Legislators: 'no one saw open carry coming'

Posted: December 17, 2013 - 6:31pm

With Conway’s “constitutional carry” demonstration approaching, other voices are weighing in on the amendment to Arkansas law that arguably allows people to openly carry handguns almost anywhere.

Conway’s “constitutional carry walk” will start at 11 a.m. on Dec. 21 at Colton’s Steakhouse on Oak Street and proceed down Oak Street and back for lunch. A demonstration in Maumelle may follow. Organizers say that anyone may join in, but urge participants against bringing rifles or shotguns and caution that demonstrators may not under any circumstance unholster their weapon.

The amendment started as House Bill 1700, and it flowed through the state’s House Judiciary Committee, the House of Representatives and the Senate with scarcely any discussion and only one vote against it.

Rep. Steve Magie (D-Conway), serves on the House Judiciary Committee and said the bill, “as it was presented to us, seemed reasonable.”

“It did not appear that it opened up the right for somebody to strap on their six-shooter and walk into a Wal-Mart,” he said.

The amendment, among other things, changes the language defining the offense from carrying a handgun “for use with a purpose to employ the handgun . . . as a weapon against a person” to “for use with a purpose to attempt to unlawfully employ the handgun . . . as a weapon against a person.

It also says that a person can lawfully carry a handgun under the “journey” exception if the person is travelling outside of their home county. Previously, a person was on a “journey” if they were travelling beyond their usual course of business, generally, so as to justify arming themselves; the question of whether their travel triggered the exception was for courts to decide.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Denny Altes (R-Fort Smith) explained the bill to the House Judiciary Committee as “basically cleanup language.” “A lot of it is recommended by the State Police and the Sheriff’s Association [and] the main thing it does is . . . it changes from a defense to an exception and then . . . Rep. Doug House suggested we put in ‘unlawfully’ and then . . . [it] defines journey,” Altes told the committee on March 21. This is the way the State Police recommended, so other than that it’s all cleanup and updating language.”

On March 26, Altes again described the bill as “mostly cleanup language from the State Police” to the full House, saying that State Police, the Sheriff’s Association and prosecutors generally were in favor of the amendment. There was no further discussion before the House approved the bill with one vote against it. The Senate approved it unanimously.

Rep. John Baine (D-El Dorado) cast the one vote against the bill. He said on Tuesday that his constituents in Union County, geographically the state’s largest, sometimes carried handguns across the county under the journey exception, which is not permitted by the newly limited definition of “journey.”

However, as some prosecutors read the law, including 20th Judicial District Prosecutor Cody Hiland, a person may now legally carry a weapon openly in almost all public places unless they actually attempt or can be said to intend to attempt to use it unlawfully against a person. Hiland has said that he won’t prosecute anyone for merely carrying a weapon, though he said he would treat weapon issues on a “case-by-case” basis.

Baine said that he didn’t expect the amended law to be interpreted as allowing open carry, and “the majority of the legislature had no idea” either.

“That’s how it got out of the committee and that’s how it got out of the House and Senate,” Baine said.

At least two other bills introduced at the last legislative session would have directly legalized open carry, including one by Altes, but both were defeated. Baine noted that legislation introduced by Rep. Sue Scott (R-Rogers) to permit open carry in unincorporated areas was defeated by one vote in the Judiciary Committee.

Legalization for open carry does have some support, Baine said, but he thinks Altes’ “clarification” of the state’s carrying a weapon statute isn’t the way to accomplish it.

“I think it’s clear that the clarification needs a clarification,” he said. “I don’t want us to have different counties and different judicial districts have different levels of the bar of justice."

Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) recently said that he supports open carry, but didn’t think the amendment authorized it either when he voted for it.

Magie said he hoped the amendment could be revisited at the next legislative session. It would take a 2/3 vote of the legislature to bring a non-fiscal issue to the floor of the ongoing fiscal session, he said, and he doubted that would happen.

Altes did not respond to a call for comment on Tuesday.

To watch Altes explain the bill to the House Judiciary committee, go to http://arkansas-house.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=9&clip_id=105... and scroll down to HB1700.

To watch Altes explain the bill to the House of Representatives, go to http://arkansas-house.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=106... and scroll down to HB1700.

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