House Committee Narrowly Passes ‘Stand Your Ground’ Legislation

Legislators rejected an amendment, but approved the original bill.

The House Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 24 Tuesday afternoon. The bill passed on a voice vote and when roll was called, the final tally was 10-9 in favor of the bill. Chairwoman Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, cast the the tie-breaking vote.

The same committee rejected the original legislation Feb. 2 on a voice vote. The bill removes the “duty to retreat” from the state’s current self-defense law. It also requires Arkansans to be “lawfully present” and not engaged in criminal activity when using deadly force to defend themselves.  

Sponsor Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, presented an amendment to the legislation yesterday. After the bill originally failed in committee, Pilkington said he worked with various stakeholders to try to find some common ground language they felt comfortable with. 

“Having worked with some of my fellow lawmakers who’ve asked me to make these changes, they believe that it provides more clarity,” Pilkington said. “And if that’s what we need to provide to make us feel more comfortable with this bill, I think that’s what we need to do. That’s part of the legislative process.”

Pilkington’s amendment aimed to address concerns about defining “lawfully present.” The amendment reads:

“Lawfully present” means that a person is at or in a location and is not committing criminal trespass, or criminal trespass on premises located in unincorporated area, for the purpose of committing a serious felony such as arson, theft, burglary, murder or rape. 

Some committee members argued the amendment did not provide clarity and in fact raised more questions. Legislators asked how Pilkington would define a “serious felony.” They also asked if only the felonies listed in the amendment would exclude someone from being “lawfully present” in a location. Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, voiced concern that not listing certain misdemeanors in the amendment could negatively impact women.

“I just see that ‘lawfully present’ does not prohibit the commission of misdemeanor stalking or misdemeanor domestic violence, which in my mind puts women in peril,” Flowers said. 

An attacker could not use “stand your ground” as a defense in instances of stalking or domestic violence, Rep. Pilkington said, because they would be the aggressor. Nathan Smith, president of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said this scenario is an example of when a dispute over interpretation of the law could come into play. “Lawfully present” defined in an enumerated way could be interpreted to mean only the things listed in the legislation, Smith said. Vague wording that could reduce clarity is one reason Smith’s organization is opposed to the amendment. 

“I think the passage of this amendment, if it did pass, would result in confusion over how the law is applied statewide,” Smith said. “It would inevitably have disparate treatment across the state because it’s going to depend on how prosecutors interpret the law.”

The Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association is however, neutral on SB 24 as originally written. Dallas Green with Gun Owners of Arkansas spoke in favor of the amendment. Initially, the group was against the original legislation because members were “greatly concerned” with the term “lawfully present.”

“While we believe all Arkansans have a God-given right to defend themselves, we do not want any criminals using the wording ‘stand your ground’ to commit murder,” Green said. 

After working with Rep. Pilkington and other lawmakers, Green said they believe the definition of “lawfully present” as submitted in the amendment will protect Arkansans’ right to self-defense and protect those with a concealed handgun carry license. 

The amendment failed by a vote of 11-7. The committee then took up SB 24 as originally written for the second time this month. This time the committee advanced the legislation by a vote of 10-9. The bill now heads to the full House. The Arkansas House convenes at 1 p.m. this afternoon and SB 24 is on the agenda.

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.