GREG HARTON: Carry on, governor says

Legislators should be clear on handgun possession laws

Posted: January 1, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson last month chimed in by letter to the Arkansas State Police to offer his opinion that it's legal for people to openly carry handguns within the state's borders.

It sounds pretty official when the governor makes such a statement, but it doesn't change the law. The governor doesn't get to pass laws. He can veto them all he wants, but he can't pass one. State law is the responsibility of the 100 members of the state House of Representatives and 35 members of the Arkansas Senate.

The governor can have an opinion that all state-owned vehicles should be painted pink, but that doesn't make it law. The same goes for our attorney general.

The hubbub over whether Arkansas is an "open carry" state has been going on for a few years.

In 2013, state Rep. Denny Altes sponsored a bill for "making technical corrections concerning the possession of a handgun and other weapons in certain places." When lawmakers talk of technical corrections, it's rare for the legislation to fundamentally change what is and isn't legal in the state. Such major shifts typically go through significant debate, and Altes' bill, had it expressly declared Arkansas an open carry state for handguns, would have sparked a major debate.

Instead, its language was so vague lawmakers who since have said they oppose the concept of open carry nonetheless voted for Altes' bill. It was only in the aftermath of its passage that open carry advocates seized on its language as justification for declaring Arkansas an open carry state.

Ironically, another bill that did clearly declare Arkansas an open carry state failed to get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the same session. So if Arkansas is, in fact, an open carry state, it got that way in a dishonest manner.

Lawmakers have had plenty of opportunity to clarify the state's law. So far, they've been content to leave the issue murky. One could suggest advocates for open carry don't have the votes for a clearly stated open carry law. Other advocates don't see a need for any legal foundation other than the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, so they'd rather keep Arkansas law vague. To admit a state law is needed is, in their minds, to admit something beyond the Second Amendment can impact their right to own and carry firearms as they see fit.

As long as descriptions about Arkansas gun laws include a reference to what different people "believe" the law says, there's a problem. The law shouldn't require belief. It's not a spiritual question, although some have been known to put as much faith in their guns as in their Creator.

Since 2013, headlines have come and gone about one attorney general saying the law doesn't allow open carry, then another one saying it does. Then there have been local sheriffs and police chiefs offering their opinions. State police, a law enforcement agency with responsibilities and jurisdiction across the state, have relied on local prosecutors to provide guidance.

What's that mean? That the law can mean one thing in some jurisdictions and something different in others.

Such room for interpretation is a clear indication that legislators have created a bigger problem than they've solved. Prosecutors certainly need to apply common sense to their application of the law, but they should not have to be discerning the fundamental meaning of a law.

I own guns and hold a concealed carry permit, so I'm not arguing for or against guns. I'm just saying Hutchinson's opinion doesn't change anything, really. He's another lawyer offering an opinion about a vague act passed by a Legislature that ought to be able to say what it means and mean what it says.

No politician in Arkansas is going to go wrong interpreting the state's laws in favor of firearms. Hutchinson' history with the NRA makes his interpretation no big surprise. That he issued a letter about it probably is more about inoculating himself from criticism from a gun range owner from Hot Springs who says she plans to challenge him for the Republican nomination in 2018.

Arkansas is in no danger of becoming an anti-gun state, even though there are several legislative candidates driven by a desire for what they consider "common sense" gun laws. Given Hutchinson's history with the NRA, it's ludicrous to suggest gun advocates have anything to fear from his leadership.

Arkansas faces a lot of tough issues about its future. Goodness knows our next governor shouldn't be determined by how far to the right one can get on the issue of guns.

Still, if Arkansas is an open carry state, why can't our Legislators man up and just say it clearly?

Commentary on 01/01/2018