Beginning July 1, Arkansas citizens will be cable to carry a handgun openly almost anywhere. That’s how various gun-rights advocacy groups interpret Act 746, passed last month by the state Legislature.
Arkansas Carry, a nonprofit organization devoted to Second Amendment rights, issued a news release last week expressing delight that Arkansas will become the fifth state in the United States to enact "constitutional carry" into law.
As defined by gun-rights advocates, constitutional carry occurs in a state when no laws generally restrict the carry of handguns, whether open or concealed, for self-defense purposes. Vermont, Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming have implemented the concept, and several others are considering it.
Act 746 removes some restrictions from Arkansas gun laws. Whether it removes enough to allow the open carry of firearms will probably have to be tested in court.
A bill specifically aimed at allowing open carry (House Bill 1408 by Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers) got nowhere in the Legislature this year. "Grandmother" Scott (that’s her e-mail handle) withdrew her bill after HB 1700 was signed into law.
Apparently Rep. Denny Altes, the main sponsor of HB 1700, cleverly hid open carry in his legislation, which was titled as intending to make "technical corrections," and got it passed and signed without controversy. Meanwhile, several high-profile gun laws, such as those allowing guns in churches and on college campuses, drew the debate.
HB 1700, introduced March 6, was amended twice in the House of Representatives before being passed 82-1, with 17 lawmakers not voting and only Rep. John Baine, D-El Dorado, smelling a rat. The following week the Senate voted 28-0 in favor, with seven not voting. On April 4 Gov. Mike Beebe signed it as Act 746.
Last week Matt DeCample, Beebe’s spokesman, told an online news website that the governor did not interpret the law as allowing citizens to carry firearms openly in public places. "You’re not talking about a legal interpretation. You’re talking about one interested party," he said.
Indeed, Arkansas Carry’s press release added a caution: "Arkansas Carry suggests that citizens consult a lawyer before carrying a handgun in public after the act takes effect. Being a new law, Act 746 is untested by the courts, and law enforcement officials are not completely aware of the implications as it pertains to the carry of handguns. … prosecutors may construe the law differently."
Stan Witt, director of the Arkansas State Police, has a different interpretation. Prior to a speech to the Kiwanis Club of Jonesboro two weeks ago, I showed him a blog note about what Arkansas Carry was saying, and the subject came up in a question-and-answer session.
Witt said the primary effect of the new law was to define a "journey" as being travel outside one’s home county.
"This kind of got twisted around in the media," he said. "It’s kind of been twisted where that’s construed as open carry: You can just strap a gun on while you’re going down the road, and you can get out and go in a [convenience store] with your gun whether you have a concealed carry permit or not. That’s not true."
Witt said anybody who tries to carry a gun openly in such a circumstance will be arrested.
But will that person be convicted?
Witt is right that Act 746 defines a journey. The definition is contained in Section 1, which will change current law to say this: "It is permissible to carry a handgun under this section that if at the time of the act of possessing a handgun or firearm …"
Then it lists various circumstances allowing a citizen to carry a handgun or firearm, including a person who is on a journey.
But that alters the current law, which begins with "It is a defense to prosecution under this section …" Thus, the change asserts a right rather than providing possible defenses from prosecution.
More importantly, at least in the eyes of Arkansas Carry and other proponents is a change in Section 2 of the current law. Here’s what it will say as of July 1 about carrying a weapon:
"(a) A person commits the offense of carrying a weapon if he or she possesses a handgun, knife or club on or about his or her person, in a vehicle occupied by him or her, or otherwise readily available for use with a purpose to attempt to unlawfully employ the handgun, knife or club as a weapon against a person."
Act 746 inserts the phrase "to attempt to unlawfully employ" into current law, and that’s obviously an important distinction. In fact, "unlawfully" was added in the second amendment to HB 1700.
That would apparently require a prosecutor to prove that a person carrying a firearm openly had an unlawful intent to use it.
However, Section 2 adds various circumstances that make it permissible to carry a weapon, none of which seem to be substantial changes in current law. Among them are being on your own property or business, being on a journey, hunting game and carrying a concealed handgun with a license.
None would appear to allow open carry, but there is an obvious change in intent that the courts will have to interpret.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.