By Rob Moritz and John Lyon
ARKANSAS NEWS BUREAU
LITTLE ROCK — Legislation that would let church officials decide whether they want to allow people with concealed handgun permits to carry weapons in places of worship was endorsed Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A House committee approved a resolution reaffirming the Legislature’s support for gun rights.
The Senate committee unanimously recommended Senate Bill 71 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, after rejecting an amendment that would have required churches that allow concealed gun holders to have liability insurance policy of at least $100,000.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, asked for the amendment, saying she wanted to protect innocent bystanders in church who might be struck by gunfire. She said her proposal would not change the intent of the bill.
"What I am submitting is protection. Otherwise, there is no protection for the church or the church member," Flowers said.
King said he worried about the amendment "opening up arguments that would … maybe even stop the intent of the bill."
Anthony Roulette, state liaison for the National Rifle Association, testified the liability insurance requirement could be a financial burden for some small churches and "a deterrent to the intent of the legislation by incurring an additional cost for churches if those choose to allow for permit holders to carry on their property."
King later told the panel that citizens need more protection from violence and less gun control. He filed similar legislation in 2011. It passed the House but died in the same committee — then controlled by Democrats — that endorsed it Wednesday without dissent from the panel now comprised of six Republicans and two Democrats.
"In rural areas, I think this bill is more important because … say late on a Sunday night in a rural county you might have situations where it might be several minutes, maybe 45 minutes to an hour, before a deputy could respond," King said.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration, possibly Thursday.
Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters later he has no objection to the bill because it leaves the decision whether to allow guns up to churches.
"I’m comfortable with that safeguard," Beebe said.
Also Wednesday, on a voice vote without discussion or dissent, the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs advanced House Resolution 1003, which urges the preservation of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
The nonbinding resolution by freshman Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, was in response to new gun restrictions proposed by President Obama in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. Among other things, the president proposed limiting the number of rounds in a clip and stricter background checks.
Womack said he was contacted by numerous constituents who expressed concern about the federal government intruding upon their Second Amendment rights.
"This is just the thing that we could do most quickly to let constituents know that we were hearing their concerns," Womack told reporters after the meeting. "They’re scared to death that the federal government is going to come in and try to confiscate weapons."
Womack acknowledged that he did not share their concerns when asked if he was afraid of losing his right to own a gun.
"I would be if I thought that was looming," he said, but added that he did not foresee it happening "anytime soon."
Beebe said later, "I don’t know anybody that’s against the Second Amendment. If a resolution helps, that’s fine."
The resolution goes to the House.
A gun-related bill that did not come up in committee Wednesday is House Bill 1035 by Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, which would allow staff and faculty members of public colleges and universities to carry concealed weapons on campus if they have concealed-carry permits.
Beebe told reporters he had concerns about the bill because the comments he had heard from college officials about it were "generally negative." He would not say whether he would veto the bill if it reached his desk.