Interpretations of new handgun law vary widely


LITTLE ROCK — A bill to allow the open carry of handguns in Arkansas was defeated in this year’s legislative session, but some say another bill that passed late in the session quietly accomplished the same thing, effectively making Arkansas an open-carry state.

Others disagree, saying they do not interpret the law to allow open carry of handguns. Some lawmakers say the bill moved through the Legislature so quickly that they did not have enough time to study its implications.

Act 746, titled An Act Making Technical Corrections Concerning the Possession of a Handgun and Other Weapons in Certain Places, amends Sections 5-73-119 and 5-73-120 of the Arkansas Code.

Section 5-7-119 currently states that if a person is prosecuted for carrying a handgun under certain conditions, the person can argue those conditions as a defense. The conditions include being “on a journey,” but the old law does not define the term “journey.”

The new law, to take effect 90 days after session formally ends on May 17, deletes from the code the language about claiming a defense in court and states that “it is permissible” to carry a handgun under certain conditions. It also defines a journey as travel outside of a person’s home county.

The law also amends Section 5-73-120 to change the definition of the offense of carrying a weapon.

Under the existing law, a person commits the offense of carrying a weapon if he or she has a weapon readily available on his or her person or in a vehicle for use with a purpose to employ it as a weapon against a person. Under Act 746, a person is prohibited from having a weapon readily available on his or her person or in a vehicle for use with a purpose “to attempt to unlawfully employ” it as a weapon against a person.

The bill also deletes from Section 5-73-120 a provision making it a misdemeanor to carry a weapon into an establishment that sells alcoholic beverages.

Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, who sponsored the legislation, did not immediately not return phone and email messages seeking comment Tuesday. Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said it “decriminalizes the carrying of a handgun, or any weapon for that matter.”

“If it’s given its plain meaning, then it essentially says unless you’re carrying with intent to commit a crime, that you can lawfully carry a handgun,” said Ballinger, a lawyer.

Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide how the law should be interpreted, he said.

The group Arkansas Carry issued a news release in late April arguing that the law allows open carry of handguns.

The group said Act 746 “decriminalizes the carry of handguns for self-defense purposes, and puts the burden upon a prosecutor to prove criminal intent of a person carrying a handgun. Also, there are no specifications whether a legally carried handgun should be carried openly or concealed.”

Altes has said that he believes Arkansas Code 5-7-113 already allows open carry of handguns, with certain exceptions.

Altes’ bill passed 82-1 in the House and 28-0 in the Senate, and was signed into law by Gov. Mike Beebe. Several legislators who voted for the bill told the Arkansas News Bureau they did not see it as an open-carry law, nor was it presented as one during the session.

“The main thing I thought the bill did was define ‘journey,’ which I thought probably needed some definition anyway,” said Rep. Nate Steel, D-Nashville, a lawyer. “I didn’t see that as a major change in the law.”

Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, a lawyer and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which endorsed the bill, said the term “journey” has been interpreted in various ways by judges, and the bill “was an attempt to clarify what otherwise was already the law.”

Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said the agency took no position on the bill during the session, which has been in recess since April 19. He said the agency has not yet given directions to its troopers on how the law should be enforced.

“We’re going to await some guidance from legal counsel,” he said.

Beebe has said that he does not support open carry of handguns. Spokesman Matt DeCample said Tuesday that the governor signed Altes’ bill because he “just considered it a technical correction bill.”

Michael Langley, director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, said he was not aware until contacted for this report that a bill had been passed deleting a prohibition against carrying a handgun into an establishment where alcohol is sold. He said he would have testified against the bill if he had been aware of it.

“Alcohol and guns don’t mix,” Langley said.

Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, said she does not support open carry of handguns, but she voted for the bill based on Altes’ description of it and the fact that it had been vetted, she assumed, by the House Judiciary Committee. She said bills were moving too quickly through the House to study them all, “especially in the end when we suspended the rules” to shorten the time it took to approve bills.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said she declined to vote on the bill because she felt it was not adequately explained on the Senate floor.

“I’m not comfortable with a lot of the bills, and it’s not just this session,” Flowers said. “It’s been kind of troubling to me before this session that there are bills that seemingly aren’t very well vetted. I just think there are too many bills that we have to vote on, and in such short time.”