Arkansas Senate Approves ‘Stand Your Ground’ Bill

The bill, which amends a current state law, now heads to the Arkansas House.

Sen. Bob Ballinger, a Republican from Ozark, is the lead sponsor of the bill which seeks to amend the state’s self defense law by removing a requirement in certain circumstances to retreat before using deadly force.

“What our bill does is say look, if you’re in a place where you legally have the right to be, that you are not in the midst of committing a crime, you no longer have the duty to retreat,” Ballinger said. “So the subjective language, ‘if you can retreat safely,’ that is being taken out.”

Ballinger ran a similar bill in 2019 that didn’t make it out of committee. At the time, Sen. Stephanie Flowers, an African American Democrat from Pine Bluff, made an impassioned speech against the bill in which she discussed her fears about her Black son being shot. The video went viral. 

“It was my deep feeling that I expressed about this bill and the harm it would do to Black people — Black boys, Black girls, Black men, Black women,” Flowers said.

Speaking against the current proposal Tuesday, Sen. Flowers said she believes there’s data supporting the assertion that while “stand your ground” laws may benefit white people killed by Black people, the reverse is not true. 

A study published in 2015 in the journal Social Science & Medicine looked at the impact of the “stand your ground” law in Florida which was the first state to enact such legislation in 2005. According to the study, individuals were more likely to avoid charges if the victim was Black or Latino but not if the victim was white. Individuals are nearly two times more likely to be convicted in a case that involves white victims compared to those involving Black and Latino victims.  

The first senators to speak against the bill Tuesday were all African American women including Little Rock Democrat Sen. Joyce Elliott. 

“I think it’s really interesting that the first three people to speak against this bill have something very much in common that often is dismissed,” Elliott said. “That’s what it feels like, that you can just be dismissed. What you say, what you feel, what your life experiences have been just don’t matter.” 

Race in this matter is no small thing, Elliott said. Oftentimes people don’t realize how bad a situation is until it happens to them, and if an issue has to be personalized for a lawmaker to care about it, Sen. Elliott questioned how effective that is in creating policy for constituents. 

“I wonder sometimes how we can make laws for all people when we keep waiting for something to happen to us before we care because chances are, it’s not going to happen to you. So you have the good fortune of just going along and seeing things purely through your eyes, not mine, not Sen. Chesterfield’s, not Sen. Flowers,” she said. “And I won’t have my thoughts and what I have to say be diminished because I happen to be a Black person.”

Sen. Jason Rapert, a Republican from Conway and a co-sponsor of the bill, argued the bill is not about race.  

“I absolutely want to make sure that everybody understands that I do object to the notion that voting for this bill is somehow racist. It’s not,” Rapert said. “We are voting for every single person — black, brown, white, whatever your color — to be able to defend yourself.” 

Rapert agreed with his colleagues who opposed the bill that he also doesn’t want to see anybody get killed, but he does want people to have the right to protect themselves.

“I’m voting for this bill so that especially vulnerable people in our state — especially all of our daughters, our wives and spouses — regardless of their color have an opportunity to defend themselves against aggressors,” Rapert said.

The bill passed the Senate 27 to 7. Sen. Jim Hendren was the only Republican to vote against the bill, while Larry Teague was the sole Democrat to vote for it. Republican Senator Ronald Caldwell did not cast a vote. The bill now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.