University of Central Arkansas students and faculty expressed concern about a concealed carry bill during a town hall meeting hosted by the university’s English department on Monday.
Rep. Clarke Tucker and Rep. Charles Blake were on hand to listen to opinions and answer questions.
The proposal, HB 1249, would require public colleges or universities to allow concealed handguns — faculty and staff only — on school campuses. Republican Rep. Charlie Collins sponsored the bill and argues that it would help deter potential mass shooters.
On Feb. 2, the Arkansas House approved the proposal 71-22. Blake and Tucker voted against it, but it will now go before the Senate at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Tucker said this is the third time that Collins has sponsored the bill. He said the first time it failed and the second time, back in 2013, colleges were given the option to opt out, leaving the decision at the local level.
"Every institution of higher education in Arkansas, has 100 percent, the last four years that this has been in effect, opted out every year," he said. "I actually support the law as it is now."
Blake said he continues to point out that the law already exists to allow the universities to decide.
"We are in a position now where we’re telling college presidents, board of trustees, people who we pay, people who we trust to our institutions, that we know more about safety and policy on their campus than they do and that’s just not a position that I’m comfortable being in."
Katherine Willis, a professor at UCA, said UCA held a previous town meeting with Collins, which she described as "rough."
"Many of us left the event quite frustrated," she said. "Collins seems unwilling to listen. He has heard continuously from public universities all over the state in near-unanimous opposition to the bill, and yet he thinks he knows better than campus police, administrators, faculty, staff and students."
Willis said she thinks the bill and Collins’s defense of deterrence is offensive to those who are highly trained and qualified to protect them, including the UCA Police Department.
"Furthermore, it runs counter to the kind of traditional conservative principles of local self-governance that one would otherwise expect Collins to support," she said.
Willis said the town-hall style meeting was a way for everyone to gather together and express their concerns around the issue.
"I had called Rep. Clarke Tucker a couple of days before that meeting to express my opposition," she said. "When he called me back, he asked if I thought there would be interest on campus in having legislators from a different point of view come to visit."
Willis said they were crunched for time, but because the Senate hadn’t deliberated yet, decided to set it up anyway.
"[Monday’s] town hall was proposed because of substantial concerns on the part of the campus community that the state legislature was basically ignoring the voices of those most directly affected by the bill," she said. "Rep. Collins’s attitude here and the passage of the bill through the House have made that clear."
Willis said Reps. Blake and Tucker were able to answer questions honestly and clearly and both gave helpful suggestions of how to continue sharing concerns.
"I have heard from many people that they appreciated the discussion and were glad to have a second opportunity to explain their views," she said. "Overall, it was an excellent demonstration of civil, democratic exchange. Even if the bill passes, I know I’m proud of how active and engaged our campus community is."
In a statement, UCA President Houston Davis said he is against the mandatory requirements and the option should remain with the schools.
"The safety and security of our faculty, staff, students and visitors are of paramount important to all of us at the University of Central Arkansas," Davis said. "We agree with Gov. Hutchinson and support the current law that grants an institution’s governing body the right to decide whether to allow the carrying of guns on campus."
He said all of UCA’s 28 full-time police officers have all received Rapid Response Training — a specialized, integrated training on police response in emergency situations.
"We value the right as a university to determine what is best when it comes to the safety of our campus," Davis said.
Many from the UCA community plan to show up Wednesday at the Capitol to protest the bill and let the Senate hear their voices.