Gun Issues Spark Discussion At Bentonville Forum

Hester Forum

The Arkansas General Assembly probably will approve legislation allowing college professors and staff members to carry concealed handguns on campus, Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said at a legislative forum Saturday (Jan. 26).

“That is something that will likely be passed in Arkansas,” Hester told about 60 attendees at the morning forum.

The event, held at NorthWest Arkansas Community College, was co-sponsored by the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce and the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce. The two chambers are conducing legislative forums at NWACC every other Saturday during the 2013 legislative session, featuring state legislators from Benton County.

A bill by Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, would allow licensed faculty and staff to carry concealed handguns on campus. Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, also is expected to introduce a “professor carry” bill.

University of Arkansas officials have opposed the concept, saying additional guns on campus might create confusion for law enforcement officers arriving at the scene of a shooting and not knowing whom to target if several people, including criminals and professors, are armed and aiming weapons.

Hester also said he supports legislation allowing church officials to determine whether they want to allow licensed concealed carry permit holders to bring handguns into a church or other place of worship.

“Every church will have a right to support that or not,” he said.

Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, has indicated he will sign a guns-in-church bill if it arrives on his desk. A measure by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, allowing guns in churches is expected to come up for a floor vote in the Senate next week.

The gun issue arose at Saturday’s forum when Bentonville resident Roger Kunzelmann asked lawmakers about it. Kunzelmann said he formerly lived near Sandy Hook Elementary, the Connecticut school that was the site last month of a mass shooting.

Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who, like Hester is serving his first term, also said he supports allowing guns in churches. He said allowing weapons in public places can act as a deterrent to “cowards” who might want to shoot people. Hendren said airline hijackings decreased once the government allowed pilots and air marshals to carry guns on aircraft. 

(Hendren, second from left, and Hester, third from left, are seen in the photograph accompanying this story. Also in the photo, taken Saturday at NWACC, are Reps. Duncan Baird, R-Rogers, far left, and Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, far right. Baird and Dotson also said they support legislation allowing guns in churches.) 

Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, she her pastor has received death threats and that she has a concealed carry permit herself. After the forum, she declined to name the pastor or say what church she attends. She said she supports allowing guns in churches.

Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers, said she supports allowing guns in churches and joked she will obtain a concealed carry permit as soon as her husband allows her to. She said she will take the gun with her to Little Rock, the state capital. Her husband is Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott.

The other two lawmakers at the forum, Reps. Debra Hobbs and Les “Skip” Carnine, both R-Rogers, also voiced support for a measure allowing guns in churches.

In an interview after the forum, U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., who chatted with state legislators when the hour-long event ended, said he doesn’t expect the U.S. House of Representatives to approve any measure that would ban semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines.

However, he said a proposal requiring universal background checks for those wanting to purchase weapons might have enough support in Congress to pass, or at least might be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations. 

Womack said instead of considering gun control legislation, lawmakers should examine movies, video games and other popular elements in the culture that he said prompt violence.

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