story and photo by Ben Pollock, special to The City Wire
Concern over a bill proposed by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, to allow concealed handguns onto Arkansas campuses pushed the meeting room of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce way past capacity Friday afternoon, with people standing beyond doorways.
More than 100 people, many affiliated with the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, attended the chamber's biweekly Legislative Forum, with one noted absence, Collins himself.
Collins was delayed leaving Conway, said chamber President and CEO Steve Clark. Collins notified the chamber at 2 p.m. he was running 15-30 minutes late and as the clock headed toward the 4 o'clock starting time, he saw he would miss the hour long session entirely, Clark said after the forum.
Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, told the crowd Collins was addressing similar concerns at the University of Central Arkansas.
The Democrats present, Sen. Uvalde Lindsey and Reps. Greg Leding and David Whitaker, all of Fayetteville, generally opposed Collins' House Bill 1243.
Lindsey noted that another bill debated in the 2013 general session that would allow Arkansas residents with concealed weapon permits to carry guns into houses of worship has an "opt-in, opt-out" clause. That means it would be up to each congregation to choose to allow the practice.
HB 1243, however, has no such clause, but states "trained and licensed staff and faculty" of all the state's colleges, universities and community colleges may carry concealed handguns onto campus.
Sen Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, stated his support for the campus gun bill throughout the session, but noted he would like to see amendments to HB 1243, perhaps addressing Lindsey's concern but also to continue to ban handguns in residential halls and fraternities and sororities.
"It's not just a Second Amendment issue. It's about keeping students safe," Hendren said, adding, "We can't stop guns from being brought onto campus."
Whitaker echoed Lindsey but surprised some in the audience when he said he had voted for the guns in church bill. He cited the First Amendment. As an attorney, he said, he sees that "we [have been] telling churches what they can do on their property," where with this law, they choose.
"I would caution churches, though, to check with their insurance companies first," Whitaker said, to laughter.
Prominent UA faculty members addressed the legislators. English professor Sidney Burris, director of the Fulbright College Honors Program, noted he participated in a petition and Facebook drive to oppose the campus concealed handgun bill. His main point was the state's concealed weapons program had only a one-day permitting system, including training.
Burris said that as a Virginia native he had shot guns since he was a boy but did not own any now. He referred to a friend who now teaches at the University of Virginia who served as a sniper in Afghanistan. His colleague distrusts handguns in general and noted he and other military snipers practice many hours daily to stay sharp.
Hendren agreed with Burris, stating the brevity of the training led him to oppose the concealed weapons permit law as it was established several years ago. He added he would like the current Legislature to strengthen the training for gun owners.
Geosciences professor Stephen Boss brought along a page of statistics he had created from data obtained from the federal departments of justice and education and the National Center for Education Statistics. The 2001-10 analysis showed that campuses are overwhelmingly safer than the population at large from "murder and nonnegligent manslaughter."
In that decade, 5.5 people per 100,000 general population were killed but only 0.007 killings per 100,000 of the college population. The Arkansas rate of homicide was far below that, 0.000097.
The 2000 slaying of UA professor John Locke in his campus office by a graduate student who then committed suicide was noted as UA's only firearms death in its history.
At the forum, that was quickly followed by an audience member noting that a UA student accidentally shot himself in the hand at the site of his work-study job, UA public radio station KUAF-FM. He was taken to Washington Regional Medical Center, according to television reports.
These comments, in addition to an audience member noting that UA Chancellor G. David Gearhart opposed HB 1243, did not sway Hendren.
"I seriously consider what leaders say," Hendren said, but that he "values the input of anyone in the audience just as much." He listens to his constituents and his supporters closely, has made his stances clear and that he was elected to follow his political philosophy, he added.
Woods expressed surprise: "Where is there such a lack of trust in your colleagues" in their general ability to handle weaponry, he asked of audience members.
Clark said the chamber's Legislature Forum is held at 4 p.m. every other Friday when the General Assembly is in session. Senators and representatives whose districts are at least partially in Washington County address constituent concerns during the hour. Not all of the legislators make each meeting, usually due to obligations in Little Rock earlier in the day Friday, said Clark, himself 1979-90 state attorney general.