Act 250 of 2021
aka: Stand-Your-Ground Law
On March 3, 2021, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law Act 250, a so-called “stand-your-ground” bill. This bill eliminated the “duty to retreat” prior to the use of physical force, even lethal force, in an act of alleged self-defense. Such laws, often called “shoot first” laws by their critics, have been highly controversial, being linked in some studies to increased murder rates in those states that passed them.
Modern “stand-your-ground” legislation has its genesis in 2005 in the state of Florida and swiftly spread to some twenty-five other states by 2020, supported by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Each of Arkansas’s neighboring states passed such legislation years before Arkansas did. A review of gun death statistics by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2021 found that, in all but one of Arkansas’s neighboring states, the number of people killed in shootings increased following approval of stand-your-ground legislation, in some cases by double-digit percentages; the one exception was Texas. However, in every neighboring state, African Americans were found to become more likely to die by gunfire in the wake of such laws. In fact, “stand-your-ground” began to receive extra scrutiny nationally following the February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Despite the fact that Zimmerman disobeyed the request of authorities that Zimmerman not follow Martin, as well as initiated the conflict with Martin, police in Sanford, Florida, initially refused to charge Zimmerman with any crime, citing the state’s stand-your-ground law. As public pressure built, igniting the movement that came to be known as Black Lives Matter, prosecutors finally charged Zimmerman, but a jury ended up acquitting him of any crime.
Republican legislators in Arkansas attempted to pass a stand-your-ground law in 2019, but the bill (HB 1059) met opposition from the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association and the Arkansas Prosecutors Association. Scott Bradley, the executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, was quoted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as saying, “HB1059 would encourage individuals to take matters into their own hands rather than avoid confrontation, resulting in many of our citizens being hurt or possibly killed.” During debate on the bill in committee, Senator Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), a Black woman, began to speak passionately about the effects of gun violence on the Black community, using several profanities, and when Senator Alan Clark of Lonsdale (Garland County) told her that she needed “to stop,” she replied, “No, I don’t. What the hell are you gonna do, shoot me?” Video of Flowers’s remarks went viral, being viewed millions of times online, and received responses from, among others, Senator Kamala Harris of California, who was elected vice president of the United States in 2020. As a result of the opposition, the bill did not make it out of committee.
However, on December 23, 2020, Senator Bob Ballinger of Ozark (Franklin County) and Representative Aaron Pilkington of Clarksville (Johnson County), the sponsor of the 2019 bill, filed SB 24, which stipulated that: “A person is justified in using physical force upon another person to defend himself or herself or a third person from what the person reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by that other person, and the person may use a degree of physical force that he or she reasonably believes to be necessary.” The bill did specify that the person was only permitted to use physical force while “lawfully present” in the location in question and generally not engaged in any criminal activity. Proponents of the bill could not provide evidence that anyone in the state had ever been prosecuted for acting in self-defense, and the “castle doctrine,” which permits physical self-defense when on one’s property (in one’s house or car), already covered a wide range of possibilities for the use of force in self-defense.
The first hearing in the Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee was held on January 13, 2021. In response to the bill, the Arkansas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national organization founded in 2012 following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left twenty-six people dead (including twenty children), said in a press release that the bill would “embolden vigilantes and extremists to shoot first and ask questions later, weaken gun laws, and make Arkansas less safe, particularly for people of color.” A letter co-signed by seventy-nine religious leaders stated that the bill “encourages people to resolve issues with violence.” The first hearing on the bill came exactly one week after armed domestic terrorists (many of them self-professed gun enthusiasts, such as the Arkansas-based extremist Richard “Bigo” Barnett) attacked the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, as part of an attempted coup d’état. The 27–7 vote in the Senate for the bill on January 19, 2021, largely split along party lines, with all Democrats voting against it and all Republicans supporting it, save Jim Hendren, who later left the Republican Party. Hendren later joined a January 31 rally at the Arkansas State Capitol in opposition to the bill.
On February 2, the bill failed to pass out of the House Judiciary Committee after three hours of citizen testimony against it, including from the pro-gun group Gun Owners of Arkansas, who, along with Representative Brandt Smith of Jonesboro (Craighead County), took particular offense with the provision in the bill requiring that someone be “lawfully present” in the location where they used physical force. Supporters of the bill initially threatened to extract the bill from committee, a maneuver that would have required two-thirds of House members to assent, but instead Rep. Pilkington offered an amendment to the bill removing the requirement that someone be “lawfully present.” With the amendment, people would be allowed to shoot someone (in alleged self-defense) even in places where guns were legally prohibited. As reporter John Moritz summarized it, “The amendment would have allowed someone with a gun who was illegally trespassing in an area where guns are prohibited to use their weapon in self defense, as long as they were not in the process of committing a more serious felony.” The amendment was opposed by state prosecutors, but the change appeased the Gun Owners of Arkansas, and the bill passed out of committee on February 23, 2021. The following day, the full House passed the bill, sending it on to Governor Hutchinson.
Hutchinson, who had previously been employed by the National Rifle Association, initially expressed hesitation about the bill, stating that it could have unintended consequences. When he signed the bill into law, he did state his hope that legislators would then take up the proposed hate crimes bill that had been lingering in the Arkansas General Assembly due to fierce opposition from Republicans. However, the proposed hate crimes bill failed to make it out of committee.
For additional information:
Monk, Ginny, and John Moritz. “Review Looks at States’ Rates of Gun Deaths; Most of Arkansas’ Neighbors Saw Rise after Laws’ Passage.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 22, 2021. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/feb/22/review-looks-at-states-rates-of-gun-deaths/ (accessed June 5, 2021).
Moritz, John. “Stand-Ground Bill Introduced by Legislators.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 24, 2020, pp. 1B, 6B.
———. “Stand-Ground Bill Now Law.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 4, 2021, pp. 1A, 5A.
———. “‘Stand Your Ground’ Bill Passes House Committee on 2nd Try.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 23, 2021. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/feb/23/stand-your-ground-bill-passes-house-committee-2nd-/ (accessed June 5, 2021).
SB 24. Arkansas State Legislature. https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/Bills/Detail?id=SB24&ddBienniumSession=2021%2F2021R (accessed June 5, 2021).
The Science of Gun Policy: A Critical Synthesis of Research Evidence on the Effects of Gun Policies in the United States. Rand Corporation, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2088.html (accessed June 5, 2021).
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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