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Override of Arkansas gun measure veto clears first vote in Senate

by The Associated Press | April 27, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
FILE - In this April 27, 2020, file photo, Gov. Asa Hutchinson takes off his Arkansas Razorbacks facemark as he arrives for the daily coronavirus briefing at the state Capitol in Little Rock. A longtime abortion opponent who once opposed allowing gay couples to be foster parents, Gov. Hutchinson is the unlikeliest figure to complain about bills on the "culture wars" reaching his desk. (Staton Breidenthal/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)

LITTLE ROCK -- The Arkansas Senate on Monday voted to override Gov. Asa Hutchinson's veto of a bill prohibiting local police from enforcing federal gun restrictions, moving closer to enacting the measure despite objections that it would jeopardize public safety.

The majority-Republican Senate voted 21-12 in favor of overriding Hutchinson's veto of the legislation, which would impose criminal penalties on state and local police for assisting federal authorities in enforcing gun restrictions that sponsors say violate the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"If there's one issue I've heard from my constituents coming in, it's, 'protect me from what's coming from D.C.,'" Republican Sen. Bob Ballinger, a supporter of the bill, said during a debate on the override.

The override attempt next moves to the House, where it needs a simple majority to pass.

The Republican governor vetoed the measure Friday, saying it would threaten cooperation between Arkansas and federal law enforcement. He also said it would jeopardize hundreds of criminal cases.

The override fight sharply divided Republicans, with Hutchinson and Senate President Jimmy Hickey saying Sen. Gary Stubblefield, the bill's sponsor, reneged on an agreement to sustain the governor's veto.

Hickey and Hutchinson said the three had reached an agreement on a scaled-back alternative bill that would have made several changes, including removing the criminal penalties for officers who don't comply.

"This is 100 percent against that (agreement) and could have dire consequences for our citizens," Hickey told Stubblefield during a debate on the measure.

Hutchinson said he was willing to sign alternative legislation modeled after a similar measure recently signed into law in Montana.

"It puts the House members in a real difficult position because they know the bill is flawed and it could create real problems, and so they've got to come up with a solution to the provisions that hurt law enforcement and public safety," Hutchinson told The Associated Press.

Stubblefield said he still planned to pursue those changes in a follow-up bill, though the Legislature is preparing to recess on Tuesday with plans to return in the fall to take up congressional redistricting.

Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have introduced similar bills this year seeking to nullify federal gun laws. Arizona earlier this month enacted a nullification measure similar to the one Hutchinson vetoed. And several states passed nullification laws under then-President Barack Obama, but judges have found them unconstitutional.

The state prosecuting attorneys association over the weekend urged lawmakers to uphold Hutchinson's veto, saying the bill could even prevent law enforcement from testifying in federal court against offender currently being prosecuted for gun crimes.

"This could potentially lead to many violent criminals going back into our communities, rather than to prison where they belong," Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith, the group's president, said in a letter dated Friday.

Additionally, the state Game and Fish Commission warned that the bill could jeopardize almost $20 million a year in federal fish and wildlife conservation funding.

Hutchinson said he's also asked the Legislature to withdraw a similar gun law nullification measure that's been sent to him that would require the state Legislature to ratify any federal gun restrictions.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said there's been "very preliminary" discussion about alternate legislation to the bill Hutchinson vetoed.

"Even proponents of (the bill) seem to be open to talking about passing legislation to fix certain issues within it," Shepherd, a Republican, said. "That just remains to be seen what those discussions might yield."

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