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Governor signs 'stand your ground' bill into law

by John Moritz, The Associated Press | March 3, 2021 at 2:54 p.m.
FILE - In this April 10, 2019 file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to reporters in his office at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo, File)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday signed into law a measure easing the state's restrictions on the use of deadly force in self-defense.

The Republican governor signed the measure that removes the duty to retreat before deadly force can be used, despite past concerns he's raised about changing the state's self-defense law.

The governor's decision on Senate Bill 24 came on the final day for him to act on the bill. If he took no action on the legislation, it would have become law. A veto would have taken a simple majority of the legislature to override.

Opponents of the bill, which included gun-control groups as well as Black and minority activists, urged Hutchinson to veto the bill after it passed the House last week. They argued that the legislation would encourage armed vigilantes and lead to more shootings and gun deaths.

The bill was championed by the National Rifle Association and many Republicans in the state legislature, who said it would decrease violent crime.

Supporters also said the bill was needed to give further legal protection to people who defend themselves, though the state's law previously allowed the use of deadly force without retreating in some situations.

"While I have often said that there is no compelling need for this legislation, I'm persuaded by the changes that have been made since it was first introduced two years ago and the fact that law enforcement no longer opposes the bill," Hutchinson told reporters.

Addressing the "heartfelt and real" concerns of the minority community, Hutchinson called on the Legislature to pass legislation creating sentence enhancements for hate crimes before the end of the session. A bill to enact a hate crimes law, sponsored by the governor's nephew, state Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Sulphur Springs, has received no movement since being filed before the start of the session.

An attempt to pass similar stand-your-ground legislation failed in 2019 when a single Republican joined Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to kill the bill.

Law enforcement also opposed the legislation at the time. The sponsors of SB24, state Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Clarksville, and Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, worked with prosecutors to craft SB24, which stated that a person must be "lawfully present" in a location to use a stand-your-ground defense. Prosecutors and other law enforcement groups subsequently became neutral on the bill.

The gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America released a statement Wednesday condemning the governor's decision to sign SB24.

“The evidence is stunningly clear: this law will make Arkansas less safe,” said Kate Fletcher, a volunteer with the Arkansas chapter of the group. “But instead of following the evidence and listening to the overwhelming opposition to this deadly bill, too many of our lawmakers caved to bullies like Sen. Ballinger, Rep. Pilkington, and their NRA allies. Shame on them."

The governor also announced Wednesday that he would sign House Bill 1112, a bill to tighten the state's voter-ID law by removing a provision allowing voters to bypass the requirement by signing their name.

This story was originally published at 2:01 p.m.

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