Gun safety advocates and gun rights groups make for the most awkward of bedfellows. But these diametrically opposed camps briefly joined forces Tuesday to defeat a dog of a bill loathed by people across the political spectrum. The Arkansas House Judiciary Committee voted down a stand your ground bill on a voice vote after three hours of testimony from dozens of people opposed to the legislation, and only one person in favor of it.
Sponsors immediately threatened to extract the defeated bill to the House floor for a vote anyway, so Tuesday’s victory and the unexpected camaraderie that brought it about may be short-lived. For tonight, though, the mishmash of disability rights advocates, community organizers, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense supporters and people of color who fear for the lives of their sons can celebrate their victory alongside the Gun Owners of Arkansas.
“This is a sad, sorry bill, and I’ve been upset since I heard about it,” said Rev. Benny Johnson, a decades-long peace warrior from Little Rock and local celebrity in the campaign to end gun violence. Johnson pointed to statistics from other states that show stand your ground laws correlate with increased murder rates, and that people of color suffer disproportionately.
For opponents like Johnson, Senate Bill 24 by state Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Ozark) and state Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville) is a license to intimidate and kill. People would no longer be required to run away from danger if they could safely do so, but instead could act with immediate deadly force. Stand your ground laws allow people to kill when threatened, even if they could have simply escaped instead.
Ballinger and Pilkington tried to pass a version of stand your ground in 2019, but failed after loud and fiery opposition from Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) and others. These two are giving stand your ground another go, despite their rift over taxation on feminine hygiene products and a lack of support from Governor Hutchinson, who has said he fears the bill could have serious unintended consequences.
Ballinger has said his constituents don’t want to have to retreat if they’re threatened. And on Tuesday, Pilkington offered up a story about being verbally assaulted by a scary Democrat as an example of where a stand your ground law could be handy. He also said he wants his pregnant wife to be able to protect herself during her morning jogs without having to stop to consider whether she could safely escape instead. Neither of the bill’s sponsors have been able to produce a concrete example of a case in Arkansas where such legislation would have been helpful, although Ballinger has twice invoked the story a woman told him about her son stabbing an aggressor in the chest and then having to serve time for it. Although even Ballinger admitted mothers might not be good witnesses in situations such as this.
A few fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee pushed back. Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) said our laws already allow for people to defend themselves, and that a new law isn’t necessary. Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) didn’t like the provision in the law that says people invoking stand your ground must be there legally, meaning they couldn’t be trespassing or carrying a gun somewhere that guns are prohibited.
And Reps. Jamie Scott (D-North Little Rock) and Jay Richardson (D-Fort Smith) made a case for a racial impact study, pointing to evidence that people of color suffer disproportionately under stand your ground laws. The bill’s sponsors remained unswayed.
Johnson warned Ballinger that if he’s successful in passing stand your ground legislation this time, “the blood is going to be on your hands.”
NAACP members, attorneys, faith leaders, parents and advocates for people with disabilities took turns heaping their reasoning before committee members, sharing statistics, cautionary tales from other states, personal fears and dire predictions. Examples of stand your ground laws being used for ill are legion. The most recent well-publicized instance comes from Georgia, where a prosecutor initially declined to charge killers of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging when he was gunned down by a truckload of white men.
Kate Fletcher, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, laid out evidence-based arguments against stand your ground laws. The policy is known for helping white shooters avoid criminal prosecution and putting Black people at further risk of gun violence, she said. When white shooters kill Black victims, the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable more frequently than when the shooter is Black and the victim is white.
Dr. Syard Evans, director of the Arkansas Support Network, told a story about one of her clients becoming disoriented and agitated in a grocery store and lashing out at her. A man with a gun approached, and Evans was able to explain the situation so that no one was hurt. Evans said she was glad for that moment when the man stopped to consider his actions before pulling the trigger.
Multiple parents of children with special needs shared their worries about their children falling victim to deadly force used by someone who misconstrues their disability for danger. “You may not know how much violence occurs against people with disabilities,” said Dustin Murphy, who with his wife adopted their 4-year-old son from Ukraine. For now, the child is happy and jolly and curious, Murphy said. But his son’s poor impulse control, combined with the physical symptoms of his cerebral palsy, could easily be misunderstood, especially when he’s fully grown.
Another worried parent, Carole Sherman is the mother of a now 52-year-old man born with a syndrome that prevented speech and normal cognitive development. She told lawmakers about an incident decades ago when her son wandered into a stranger’s house where a man was home. Luckily, the man was a doctor and recognized Sherman’s son wasn’t a danger. Sherman values the current law that includes a duty to retreat if one can do so safely because she believes people should think twice before hurting someone else.
“It must have been alarming to see a stranger in his home, probably moving his arms uncontrollably, making strange noises and coming too close,” Sherman said. “When I think about that day I think about how fortunate we are that he paused and waited.”
What would a stand your ground law mean for me? Fernando Woods of Little Rock asked. “I’m Black, 6-foot-one, 215. That’s intimidating to some people.” Would those people, feeling threatened, be justified in shooting him? Woods also mused about what might happen if he flipped the script. What if Black people started shooting all the people with MAGA hats? Because every day when I see one of those hats, I feel threatened,” he said.
Attorney and former judge Jon Comstock, a 70-year-old white man, said the duty to retreat when one can do so safely shows that our society values human life. He worries that should stand your ground legislation pass, it will be dangerously misinterpreted. “People won’t understand the nuances. They’ll think something dramatic has happened in Arkansas, and they’ll be right.”
White supremacists will misuse stand your ground laws as another means to intimidate and threaten Black people, he said, setting off a quiet rumble of snaps from people in the audience behind him who agreed. “The terror that Black people have been subjected to throughout our entire history, even up to the current time, is something that’s hard to deal with,” Comstock said. “This duty to retreat is a valuable thing.”
Two people representing the Gun Owners of Arkansas, a pro-gun group, offered up dissent equally as vociferous, but coming from a completely different place. Michael Kaiser, an attorney for the group, said the state’s current self-defense law is a good one. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. Members of his group took issue with portions of the bill that specify the law is only applicable if a gun owner is legally present. Does that mean that someone who is threatened in place where he’s not supposed to have a gun cannot respond with deadly force, Kaiser asked. There’s simply too much ambiguity here, he said. The fact that Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense is here agreeing with Gun Owners of Arkansas is proof that this is a bad bill, he said.
The bill’s sole cheerleader, Paul Calvert, conjured an imaginary situation in which a character named Bob bludgeons the scoundrel Sam with a baseball bat after Sam tries to prevent Bob from voting. Calvert said it’s time to ditch the duty to retreat, a remnant of English common law.
After three hours of testimony, House Judiciary Committee Chair Carol Dalby (R-Texarkana) called for a voice vote, and the Nos were far louder than the Yeses. The voice vote saved no-voting Republicans from having to go on record in opposition to an NRA-sponsored bill (the NRA looks harshly on dissenters and is quick to downgrade their NRA ratings, which are still a selling point for some voters).
Ballinger said House members will vote on extracting the bill to the full House for a vote tomorrow. This is an extreme measure that would require a two-thirds vote from House members, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. The infamous “campus carry” bill of 2017, allowing guns on college campuses, never earned the votes to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But state senators voted to extract it. They then approved the bill, and Hutchinson signed it into law as NRA brass looked menacingly on.