By BCN Executive Editors Wesley Brown — Feb. 24, 2021 — The Republican-led supermajority flexed its muscles on Wednesday in overwhelmingly approving a controversial “stand your ground” bill that opponents say would put Black citizens in harm’s way and undermine current law.
Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, easily passed on the House floor by a vote of 72 yeas, 23 nays and one present. Four legislators did not vote, including House Minority Leader Rep. Fred Love of Little Rock and Rep. Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff, both Democrats.
The bill will now go to the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has not indicated whether he would sign it, pull out his veto pen, or let the measure become law without his John Hancock. Arkansas now joins 36 other states in the U.S. that have similar laws.
The bill would allow someone to use deadly force to defend themselves against an aggressor. On Tuesday, SB24 received a do-pass recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee after an amendment by House co-sponsor, Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R- Knoxville, was rejected by the 20-person panel.
Later in the sparsely attended hearing, the committee approved the measure in a voice-vote, followed by a roll call showing the measure passed by a vote of 10-9. Although the House Judiciary requires eleven votes to move out of committee, only 10 votes were needed because House rules allow for one less vote if the Speaker of the House is not present to vote. House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, a lawyer and member of the influential committee chaired by Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, was not present.
On Feb. 4, SB24 was soundly rejected in a voice vote before the same judiciary panel after nearly four hours of debate and emotional testimony at the State Capitol in Little Rock. After the bill was seemingly killed, the Black-centric crowd loudly celebrated and thanked the committee for rejecting the measure, although Pilkington and Ballinger later threatened to pull the bill out of committee straight to the House floor.
Although the sponsors’ ultimately did not deploy the rarely used parliamentary procedure to extract SB24 out of committee to gain surefire approval before the House’s Republican veto-proof supermajority, the late Tuesday evening House vote after a weeklong winter storm-aided recess had the same effect.
In closing for his proposal in committee, Pilkington said SB24 had the same language that was rejected three weeks ago before the mostly Black-centric crowd. At that hearing, several black lawmakers, public officials and other Arkansans used their time to make impassioned pleas for the panel to vote against legislation they said would imperil black lives.
“I just asked that we pass Senate Bill 24,” Pilkington urged his House colleagues on the largely Republican committee before the successful do-pass vote. “We worked really hard on this to get this passed. It has been over two years since we’ve tried to work and get this done.
“And I understand (SB24) is not perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever passed or ran a single bill that was perfect. So, I do ask those members on the committee not to let perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Pilkington before the bill was approved after 90 minutes of debate.
In Wednesday’s vote on the House floor, the results were anticlimactic except for the final vote tally. In closing at the House podium, Pilkington made the argument that SB 24 would remove Arkansas’ “duty to retreat” requirement in current law. He said House and Senate Republicans have been working for more than two years to pass a “stand your ground” law that would be supported by most Arkansans.
“This is the bill that gets us to where we want to go and one that most Arkansans are OK with,” he said.
However, at least six Black lawmakers and several other Democratic opponents of the SB24 disagreed, saying the legislation was among a gaggle of bills circulating at the State Capitol that were racist, backwards, and even stupid.
Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock, offered an emotional counter to Pilkington and other Republican claiming that SB24 was a self-defense measure needed to level the playing field for all citizens to legally defend themselves.
“This bill distorts the law of self defense,” said the mask-wearing Allen. “This bill is designed to make headlines, not headway. This bill is designed to take lives, and not to save lives.”
Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville, came to the House dais and said he had never in his fifth term in the legislature spoken against a bill. “To be silent is to consent,” he said. “Does Travon Martin ring a bell to anyone in this chamber?”
Hodges went on to say that the same law that allowed the 17-year Martin to be shot and killed in Florida by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman would also put his young son in danger. “I have a 12-year Black son that I am concerned about if this piece of legislation is passed who could become a Trayvon Martin,” said Hodges.
Rep. Reggie Murdock, D-Marianna, said SB 24 is part of a cookie-cutter trend in the Arkansas general assembly to mimic similar bills in other states — to the detriment of Black people. He asked Pilkington directly to explain how the bill would make Arkansas and the U.S. any better.
“This bill is stupid and unnecessary,” said Murdock, noting the futility of his speech. “It is easy in a supermajority to bring such legislation for political or other reasons – stupid is the word that was used.”
Following Murdock, several other supporters and opponents of SB24 also offered impassioned speeches for or against the four-page bill. In the end, the Republican supermajority was too much of a heavy lift for SB24 opponents. Going into the session, the GOP held all of the federal and constitutional offices in Arkansas as well as a 78-22 veto-proof margin in the state House and a 28-7 stronghold in the state Senate.
One of the Republican who was a vocal opponent of SB24 when it was approved by the Senate in January by a vote of 27-7 has since left the party, citing the Pro-Trump takeover that backed the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building. Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette, a nephew of Gov. Hutchinson, is now an independent who is rumored to be raising money to make a run for governor against the heavily funded former Trump secretary, Sarah Sanders Huckabee, and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
In the 2019 session, similar stand your ground legislation failed in the same House Judiciary committee that quietly approved the measure during Tuesday’s 90-minute hearing. The 2019 vote was highlighted by Pine Bluff Democrat Sen. Stephanie Flowers’ emotional and profanity-laced speech that went viral on Facebook and social media.
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