It took state senators less than an hour on Tuesday to pass a “stand your ground” bill that would allow Arkansans to kill if they feel threatened, even if they could safely escape.
The final vote was 27-7, with all but one Republican voting for the bill and all the Democrats voting against it. Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) was the lone Republican to oppose the bill. Sen. Ron Caldwell (R-Wynne) didn’t vote.
Opponents point to evidence that stand your ground laws in other states correlate with increased homicides, and they’re shown to have inordinately harsh effects on people of color. The NRA and other gun rights proponents argue that stand your ground laws make it easier for people to defend themselves.
The bill, SB 24, now goes to the House judiciary committee for consideration.
No one was surprised that Ballinger zipped his stand your ground bill right through the Arkansas Senate Tuesday afternoon. As expected, the hyper-majority Republican body blessed the bill with a 27-7 vote.
What was surprising, however, was just how baldly pro-gun lawmakers let their indifference to the concerns of Black communities be known, and how unbothered they seemed about the inevitability of people dying unneccessarily if the stand your ground bill becomes Arkansas law.
Sens. Stephanie Flowers (D-Little Rock), Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) and Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), the only Black women in the Senate, unsuccessfully offered up a full menu of statistics, personal appeals and legal arguments against a stand your ground law that would allow Arkansans to kill if they feel threatened, even if they could safely get away. All three pointed out that SB 24 seems completely unnecessary. Proponents of a stand your ground law in Arkansas have never been able to produce a case in which such a law would have saved a life, prevented a crime or kept someone who killed in self defense out of legal trouble.
Flowers, who famously and successfully argued down Ballinger’s attempt to pass a stand your ground law in 2019, said current self-defense laws passed in 1947 continue to serve Arkansas well. “You’ve always been able to protect yourself,” she said.
Removing that duty to retreat if one can do so safely could have only negative consequences, Chesterfield said. A gun owner herself, she said she worries about creating an atmosphere where it feels easier, less consequential, to pull a trigger. “This state does not need this bill. Nobody has been killed because they had to think twice before they killed somebody,” she said.
While acknowledging that passing the bill Tuesday was likely a foregone conclusion, Elliott did not allow the racist implications of SB 24 to go unchallenged.
“I think it’s really interesting that the first three people to speak against this bill have something very much in common that is often dismissed,” she said. “I won’t have my thoughts and what I have to say be diminished because I happen to be a Black person.”
Elliott went on to offer statistics about how stand your ground laws negatively impact people of color. “When white shooters kill black victims, the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable 11 times more frequently than when the victim of a black shooter is white,” she said. “The facts show somebody who looks like me has a real reason to be concerned.”
But even with Sens. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), Jim Hendren and Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) echoing their arguments, the Black women were drowned out and overpowered by the gung-ho pro-gun conservatives that make up a supermajority.
Sponsor Ballinger simply brushed off concerns about the deadly and/or racist effects of a stand your ground law in Arkansas. “My district said they don’t want to have an obligation to retreat when they need to defend themselves,” he said.
Sen. Alan Clark (R-Hot Springs) took an early lead in offering up the most jaw-dropping reason for supporting the NRA-backed bill and rejecting arguments that stand your ground laws are racist. “Twice as many whites are killed by Blacks as Blacks are killed by whites,” he said. “There are not a lot of white people out there trying to kill Black people.”
Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado), a diehard proponent of gun rights, still managed to upstage Clark with his now-famous story of a mugging in a North Carolina parking lot. Garner first told this story at the Capitol in 2019, when this same bill stalled out in the Senate Judiciary Committee after gun safety groups, the NAACP, the state Prosecutors’ Association and others joined forces to stop it.
In the story, Garner heroically saves his terrified linebacker friend by breaking the arm of the would-be robber, then scrambling for the robber’s dropped gun, sustaining a bullet wound in the process. The robber was able to grab the gun and run away. But had Garner grabbed the gun and shot his assailant, he said he would want the law to protect him, even if the assailant was fleeing the scene.
“If I had picked that gun up first, what do you think I would have done to him? I would have shot him in the back as he ran away,” Garner said. “I’d have been on the 5 o’clock news as someone who killed an unarmed man running away.”
(It’s important to note that as extreme as it is, even the stand your ground bill under consideration at the Arkansas Capitol likely doesn’t allow for shooting people in the back as they run away.)
Red-shirted Moms Demand Action members, a fixture in previous legislative sessions, are largely absent this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Full disclosure: I have been a dedicated and unapologetic volunteer with Moms Demand Action since 2016). But spokesperson Kate Fletcher said Moms volunteers will follow SB 24 to the House, and continue to fight against it. “The so-called ‘Stand Your Ground’ legislation that just passed the Senate is a racist non-solution to a nonexistent problem,” Fletcher said. “Arkansas already has strong self-defense laws that protect people in danger, and this bill would increase violence across communities, especially for Black people and communities of color.”
Fletcher said she worries the bill will embolden vigilantes and extremists to shoot first and ask questions later, making Arkansas less safe, particularly for people of color.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the stand your ground bill as soon as Thursday.