A trio of Arkansas legislators officially requested an advisory opinion from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Wednesday on whether a 2013 law allows for the open carry of firearms.
The action by Rep. Nate Bell (I), Sen. Jon Woods (R), and Rep. Tim Lemons (R) comes as a string of local law enforcement agencies across the state have announced differing interpretations of what is legal and after comments from Republican leaders, including Rutledge, that open carry is legal. All three lawmakers interpret the law to support open carry and are proponents of open carry.
Representative Nate Bell, a recently turned Independent from Mena, is helping lead the charge.
"A lot of law enforcement agencies are being asked to make decisions. There’s a lot of public pressure for the process to speed up," Bell said. "Several of us felt like it was best to go ahead and get an opinion request out there. Even though they’re not legally binding, they do offer some guidance to the law enforcement community. A few of them seem to be confused."
Rep. Bell said the request to the Republican attorney general comes after a period of hesitation.
"I’ve actually encouraged other legislators to hold and to wait to file this opinion request because there are some cases in litigation. I would personally have preferred that we had the results of that litigation prior to requesting an AG opinion,” said Bell.
The last official attorney general opinion, from Rutledge's Democratic predecessor Dustin McDaniel, said the 2013 law did not legalize open carry. The State Police follow that guidance.
Some legislators that passed the bill two years ago have said they didn’t understand legalizing open carry as the intent of the legislation at the time.
There have been several instances recently of Arkansans being alarmed by the site of someone carrying a weapon.
On Sunday police were called to a west Little Rock movie theater, but did not arrest an armed man after determining he did not intend to harm other moviegoers.
Even if a department believes open carry is legal, that does not mean someone carrying a gun won't be questioned by police.
Lt. Steven McClanahan, a spokesman for the Little Rock Police Department, says officers will determine the appropriate action.
"The patrol officer would make contact with the individual, maybe just ask a few questions," McClanahan said. "We would determine what his intent is or isn’t and then we would probably either number one, arrest him; or two, let him go... If we can’t determine if that individual is going to commit an unlawful act, most likely he would probably not be arrested."
McClanahan says that the LRPD acts according to its interpretation of the law, but they also have resources to guide them.
"We’re following the exact letter of what we believe the law to say. You cannot be charged with carrying unless you have some kind of intent to commit an unlawful act."
He says police have the option of seeking advice from a prosecuting attorney if they are unsure about a situation.
"We allow the officer to have some discretion, and if need be we have an on-call prosecutor. If it’s during the prosecutor’s hours we can always check with the prosecuting attorney’s office because they are the ones to try our cases in criminal court."
— Nate Bell (@NateBell4AR) June 10, 2015