Senate Bill 24 (SB 24), commonly known as the Stand Your Ground Bill, has been passed overwhelmingly by the Arkansas House of Representatives.
House lawmakers passed the bill by a margin of 73 to 23 with four not voting and one voting present, on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
Sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Ozark) and Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville), SB 24 has been one of the most controversial bills in the current legislative session. The bill would amend the state’s current self-defense law to remove a “duty to retreat” for individuals who use physical deadly force when threatened and “has a reasonable belief that the person against whom the deadly physical force is used is imminently threatening to cause death or serious physical injury.”
According to the bill, individuals are allowed to use deadly physical force when they are “lawfully present in [a] location,” “not engaged in criminal activity that gives rise to the need to use physical force, and “not engaged in any activity in furtherance of a criminal gang, organization or enterprise…”
The Arkansas Senate subsequently passed an amendment to the bill on Jan. 14, specifying that individuals are not required to retreat before using deadly force if he or she is not “committing a felony offense of possession of a firearm by certain persons…with the firearm used to employ the deadly physical force…” unless the individual is within his/her home or within his/her curtilage.
State senators passed the bill on Thursday, Jan. 14. It was subsequently forwarded to the House and referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which returned it to the main body with a “Do Pass” recommendation.
Introducing the bill on Wednesday, Pilkington said that developing SB 24 was not an “easy process” but that “this is the bill that we feel gets us to where we want to go and that most Arkansans are okay with.”
Pilkington lambasted the opposition to the bill, saying that there have been “so many lies about this bill.” The “simple and necessary” parameters listed in the bill, according to Pilkington, would allow people to defend themselves.
“It’s been called a kill-at-will bill, a license to kill, and someone even said it’s the legalization of murder in the state of Arkansas,” he said. “The truth is that we are slightly moving the needle here in Arkansas to allow Arkansans to defend themselves when they find themselves in situations where they need to use legal force.”
Multiple lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, descended into the well to speak for and against the bill following Pilkington’s opening address. Rep. Fred Allen (D-Little Rock) provided the opening salvo for the opposition, making reference to rising homicide rates associated with stand your ground laws.
“Stand your ground laws have had deadly effects across the country. These laws are associated with an increase in homicides, rates translating to more than 150 additional gun deaths each month in the United States. It allows a person to use deadly force in a confrontation without any duty to retreat even if they can do so in a safe manner. It encourages the escalation of aggressive behavior, resulting in the overall increase of firearm homicides or injury,” he said.
Multiple studies have supported the idea that stand your ground laws have resulted in higher firearm homicide rates. According to the RAND Corporation, researchers found “moderate” evidence that such laws increase total homicide rates and “supportive” evidence that they increase firearm homicide rates. However, the organization noted that researcher was inconclusive on the laws’ impact on other types of violent crime.
The organization cited seven studies with five estimating the impact of the laws on total homicides or other violent crimes and six estimating the impact of stand your ground laws on firearm homicide rates.
According to the Giffords Law Center, stand your ground laws “are associated with an eight percent increase in firearm homicides,” citing a 2013 study used in the RAND Corporation’s study. Per month, approximately 30 to 50 individuals in the United States are killed as a result of the stand your ground laws, the Giffords Law Center states. Everytown Research cites an even higher rate of homicide rate – 150 deaths per month in the United States associated with stand your ground laws.
The center cited a 32 percent increase in firearm homicide rates and 24 percent increase in overall homicide rates in Florida since the passage of its stand your ground law in 2005.
Rep. Marcus Richmond (R-Harvey) argued that SB 24 was a “good bill” and that concerns of escalating violence were unwarranted. “Those who are opposed are going to try to tell you that absolute mayhem is going to break out in the streets of Arkansas,” he said.
Richmond went on to say that issues of violence already exist and that SB 24 would not provide cover for murderers. Using the example of two individuals fighting in a bar, Richmond said that if those individuals got into a fight and that escalated into a shoot-out, SB 24 would not be applicable to SB 24.
“That great philosopher Forrest Gump told us that stupid is what stupid does. Those two idiots decided long before they even left the house that there was going to be a problem. No matter how much legislation we pass here, we’re never going to fix stupid. It’s just not going to happen. Those things are all on the front end of this legislation, and they tell you that you should not provide that opportunity because this is a self-defense bill. This is not just a stand your ground – this is actually self-defense. That we should not consider it because of those potential problems. But what they don’t tell you is that those potential problems exist now,” he said.
The real purpose of the bill, Richmond argued, was aiding individuals who are in unforeseeable situations where life-or-death decisions have to be made. Richmond said that the bill would help “widen the lane” for individuals in these circumstances.
“We need to take into consideration those people who out there who might find themselves in a circumstance where a situation develops,” he said, slamming the podium, “and it’s over that quick.”
“If you’ve ever been in a gun fight, it’s not like a video game. It’s not like the movies. Circumstances happen and it moves very quickly and you only have seconds to make a decision. And you’re either alive or you’re dead. Hopefully, you’re alive.
“The purpose of this bill is because then after you have made that split-second decision, our prosecuting attorneys have days, weeks and months to dissect, to look, to turn upside down every step that you took that led you to making that decision. And they, if they want, will find something wrong,” he said.
While voting against the bill, Rep. Gayla Hendren McKenzie (R-Gravette) emphasized that SB 24 did not give license for violence. The bill, she said, maintained the doctrine of reasonable grounds but noted that she would not be supporting the bill.
“This is not a kill-at-will bill. It isn’t. Reasonable grounds, reasonable force, reasonable man is still the standard. I’m going to vote against this bill because I believe this makes it worst. If I had to use lethal force, I would prefer to have the existing law that’s time-tested than this change,” she said.
“I also acknowledge that there’s so much confusion about self-defense in Arkansas. Stand your ground, retreat. People are saying, I don’t want to have retreat. We keeping using that phrase here. Folks, it is retreat in complete safety. There are very few instances where you’re in an issue and you can retreat in complete safety,” she said.
Rep. Nicole Clowney spoke in opposition to the bill, arguing that the bill would serve to harm Arkansans if passed. Passing stand your ground laws, in Clowney’s view, creates a culture that enables deaths, such as Armaud Arbery’s, with Clowney noting that the one anniversary of his murder was the previous day.
Clowney told the lawmakers that she had sought guidance from law enforcement about this bill and had received no recommendations for it. “Our self-defense laws are solid. That’s why prosecutors aren’t arguing for this. That’s why law enforcement officers aren’t arguing for this,” Clowney said.
During a phone call, executive director Gary Sipes said that the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police was neutral on the bill. Arkansas Money & Politics has reached out to the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, who previously held neutral positions on the bill, for updates.
One of the majority arguments brought up against the bill by lawmakers was the potential for the bill to lead to racially-biased crime. “It encourages legal racial bias. Stand your ground have a disproportionate impact on people of color, people of my color, people who are brown. They are disproportionally impacted by this bill,” Rep. Allen said.
Rep. Monte Hodges (D-Blytheville) also addressed the issue of racial bias, making a pointed comparison between his son and Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black teenager who was killed by a White man in Florida in 2012.
“I happen to have a twelve-year-old black son that I’m concerned about if this piece of legislation gets passed who could be a Trayvon Martin, he said.
“This piece of legislation would be negligence to young black and brown people that look like me.”
Several organizations have found a link between stand your ground laws and racial disparities in violence. The American Bar Association urged the repeal of existing stand your ground laws in 2015, asking legislative bodies to refrain from enacting laws that eliminated the duty to retreat before using force and to eliminate civil immunity provisions. According to an ABA report, multiple studies have found racial disparities in stand your ground-justified homicides. In states with stand your ground laws, justified homicide cases with a White perpetrator and a Black victim were almost double those of states with no stand your ground laws. Other homicide cases, such as with Black perpetrators and Black victims, Black perpetrator and White victim, and White perpetrator and White victim, had significantly lower percentages of justified homicides.
“Thus, although racial disparities in the likelihood of being found to be justified exist in Stand Your Ground states, the rate is significantly higher, such that a white shooter who kills a black victim is 350 percent more likely to be found to be justified than if the same shooter killed a white victim,” the report said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center also stated that stand your ground laws “deepen these vast racial disparities in the legal system.” Based on data collected by the organization, they concluded that homicides of Black people more than doubled in stand your ground states between 2005 and 2011.
“This bill is designed to make headlines, not headway. This bill is designed to take lives, and not to save lives,” Rep. Allen said.
Those voting in favor included Barker, Beatty Jr., Beck, Bentley, S. Berry, M. Berry, Boyd, Bragg, Breaux, Brooks, Brown, Bryant, Carr, Cavenaugh, Christiansen, Cloud, Coleman, C. Cooper, Cozart, Crawford, Dalby, M. Davis, Deffenbaugh, Dotson, Eaves, Eubanks, Evans, C. Fite, L. Fite, Fortner, Furman, Gazaway, Gonzales, M. Gray, Haak, Hawks, Hillman, Holcomb, Hollowell, Jean, L. Johnson, Ladyman, Lowery, Lundstrum, Lynch, Maddox, McClure, McCollum, M. McElroy, McGrew, McNair, S. Meeks, Milligan, Payton, Penzo, Pilkinton, Ray, Richmond, Rye, Slape, B. Smith, S. Smith, Speaks, Tosh, Underwood, Vaught, Wardlaw, Warren, Watson, Wing, Womack and Wooten.
Those voting against the bill include Reps. F. Allen, Clowney, A. Collins, K. Ferguson, D. Ferguson, Fielding, D. Garner, Godfrey, M. Hodges, Hudson, Jett, Magie, McCullough, McKenzie, Miller, Murdock, Nicks, Perry, Richardson, Scott, Springer and D. Whitaker.
Rep. Tollet voted present, while Reps. V. Flowers, Love, J. Mayberry and Shepherd did not vote.
The bill has been returned to the Arkansas Senate as passed, where it will move onto Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk.