LITTLE ROCK — The state Senate on Wednesday approved legislation that would deny public access to personal information of people who apply for or hold permits to carry a concealed handgun.

Senate Bill 131 by Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, passed on a 24-9 vote and goes to the House.

The measure would exempt the names and ZIP codes of permit holders, and those who have applied for them or previously held them, from disclosure under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

"I don’t believe this does erode the Freedom of Information Act. This is just a privacy issue, we’re not talking about how we’re spending our state dollars," Holland told the Senate. "People who get their concealed-weapons license don’t want their names listed."

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, questioned how the exemption would work since the Legislature just this week passed Senate Bill 71, to allows churches to decide for themselves whether to let people with conceal-carry permits into their buildings.

"How would a church verify that a person who claims to be holding a valid permit is actually permitted if they can’t access" the information, she asked.

When Holland suggested they ask the see the permit, Flowers responded that they could easily be falsified or forged.

"How would the church verify besides taking a person’s word and something they produce that they are a valid permittee?" Flowers asked again, noting that documents can be counterfeited and that a bill has even been filed to address possible fraud in voting.

Holland responded that the bill "doesn’t change the gun laws in any way and I would argue that someone who is going to break the law is going to break the law regardless of whether a license has been issued or not … it doesn’t keep criminals from being criminals."

"That’s true, but how do we allow protection to people that are relying on information to be the truth without allowing them to try to verify?" Flowers persisted

"All the bill does is exempt the name and ZIP code from the FOI, it doesn’t change any gun laws," Holland said.

Similar legislation considered by the Legislature four years ago resulted in a compromise among lawmakers and representatives of the Freedom of Information Coalition that required only the name of the permit holder and their ZIP code to be public record.

Gov. Mike Beebe said Wednesday he supports the 2009 compromise and opposes Holland’s proposal. The governor, however, declined to say whether he would veto the bill if is passed by the House.

Holland said he filed HB131 in response to a New York newspaper’s decision in December to publish the names and addresses of concealed-carry permit holders in two New York counties after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Representatives of the FOI Coalition said in a Senate committee this week that they disagreed with the New York paper’s decision and that no newspaper in Arkansas has published such information.

After Wednesday’s Senate session, Flowers told reporters she was concerned that churches could be deceived by people who do not have a legitimate permit and that she is researching the concealed-carry permitting process to see if legislation could be filed to make it more strict.

"We really need to be a little bit more concerned about who gets to carry a permit. Are these people being evaluated for mental stability?" she asked. "Are they being evaluated for drug or substance or alcohol abuse?"

Arkansas’ concealed-carry law states that a person must be denied a permit to carry a concealed weapon if the person chronically and habitually abuses a controlled substance or alcohol to the extent that his or her normal faculties are impaired; has been adjudicated mentally incompetent; or has been voluntarily or involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, among other reasons.

Also Wednesday, Flowers entered a letter into the Senate Journal stating that she wished to vote "no" Tuesday on SB 71 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, but was incorrectly recorded as voting for the guns in church bill.

In accordance with Senate rules, the roll call on SB 71 will not change but Flowers’ letter will go into the Senate Journal next to the vote.

The Senate also approved House Bill 1126 by Rep. Allen Kerr, R-Little Rock, in a 34-0 vote. The bill, which now goes to the governor, would change the Arkansas State Highway Employees Retirement System’s board of trustees from a six-member to a seven-member board, with the seventh member being the director of Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.


Reporter John Lyon contributed to this report