There aren’t many forces in conservative Arkansas with more influence than the National Rifle Association. This week, the Southeastern Conference proved it is one of them.
On Friday, state legislators passed a measure that would allow universities to bar firearms from stadiums, hospitals, and other select areas on school grounds.
It wasn’t opening up bars, churches, day care centers to concealed weapons that got everyone riled up. It was the prospect of thousands of rowdy football fans with access to firearms, and the potential sanctions that such a policy might incur from one of the country’s most accomplished athletic conferences.
The bill, which cleared the Senate in a 23-7 vote, would require universities that wish to prohibit guns at sporting events to declare stadiums and other venues “firearms sensitive;” install measures like metal detectors and barricades to prevent attacks on the student population; and submit a security plan to the Arkansas State Police for approval.
Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, is expected to approve the legislation when it reaches his desk, which could happen as soon as Friday afternoon.
The measure amends a law signed last week by the governor that greatly expands the places in Arkansas where a licensed gun owner can carry a concealed firearm. Bars, daycare centers, and the state capitol are no longer allowed to prohibit weapons. But what got the most attention was the lifting of gun-carrying restrictions on college campuses, including teaching hospitals and sports stadiums.
The football stadium at the University of Arkansas holds 72,000 people, and is a focal point for the entire state on game days in the fall.
The law elicited fierce opposition from constituents, and left some legislators fearing sanctions from the Southeastern Conference or the NCAA. The same week the bill was signed, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement that allowing guns at sporting events could “negatively impact the intercollegiate athletics program at the University of Arkansas in several ways.”
It was a message that resonated at the state capitol. On Thursday, Representative Douglas House, a Republican from central Arkansas, said the potential fallout of leaving the original law in place swayed his vote.
“Get kicked out of the NCAA, SEC, and every other conference … or restrict the places where firearms can be carried,” he wrote in an email to The Trace.
Under the revised campus-carry bill, a university wishing to prohibit firearms at a stadium must apply for an annual waiver from the Arkansas State Police to designate the space as “firearms sensitive.” Prior to every event, the school will also be required to submit a detailed security plan to the state police. The security plan must outline the event’s projected attendance; the number of security guards, police officers, and first responders working the venue; and additional information including the route for emergency vehicles and the locations of stairwells.
The Arkansas State Police declined to comment on the specifics of the provision, but spokesman Bill Sadler said that it would follow whatever law is passed.
The venues must also be outfitted with security measures, including a “barricade” or similar structure to prevent outside attacks, and metal detectors.
The bill does not specify who will pay for the security upgrades. Representative Charlie Collins, a Republican who has been instrumental in crafting the amended bill as well as the original campus-carry legislation, said the cost will be on the backs of universities. He compared a stadium without the required security to a fast food restaurant, “if you want to go to a fancy restaurant, okay, then you pay more,” he said.
MetLife Stadium in New York, which can hold about 10,000 more people than the University of Arkansas’s Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, installed metal detectors two years ago at a reported cost of $500,000. That does not include the cost of hiring security staff to attend the machines. The University of Arkansas facility does not currently have metal detectors.
A spokesperson for the university’s athletic department, Kevin Trainor, said the school has not calculated what it would cost to upgrade its security to comply with the new bill.
At least eight states, including Texas and Colorado, allow the carrying of concealed firearms on college and university campuses. Each state carves out exemptions, and has varying criteria for who is allowed to be armed. Arkansas’s requirements are stricter than most: Individuals must undergo eight hours of active shooter training.
The NRA fiercely opposed the amended bill, arguing that its training requirement is too strict, and language too broad. In an alert urging its members to call Arkansas legislators, the organization’s lobbying arm published a statement saying that if a stadium can be designated as a gun-free area “it may encompass an entire campus.”
One state representative, Republican Aaron Pilkington, tweeted about receiving calls from NRA members.
Seventy-three percent of the state’s legislators have an NRA grade of A- or better, according to a November analysis by The Trace. Grades are used by the gun group as a way to keep lawmakers loyal to the organization’s agenda, which at the state level centers on expanding the right to carry firearms in public places.
But several state legislators told The Trace that even the NRA could not sway their votes.
“I’m not going to vote one way because one organization tells me to, no matter what organization that is, if it’s not in the interest of my voters at home,” said Representative Jack Ladyman, a Republican who voted to pass the bill. His district, 59, is close to the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro. Ladyman added that representatives from the university are concerned about plummeting ticket sales should firearms be allowed into the stadium.
Representative House was similarly reluctant to give into the NRA’s demands.
“We can have guns or college sports,” he wrote. House received a flood of emails from NRA members before the revised bill went up for a vote, but characterized them as spam: Many of the messages came from people living outside of his district.
“We’re very, very disappointed,” Anthony Roulette, the state liaison for the NRA, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “This is an anomaly.”
As to the NRA’s concern that universities will expand gun-free zones to other parts of campus, Collins said he will retaliate next session if universities try to expand restrictions beyond sports stadiums and hospitals.
“I’ll pass a bill that says they can’t prohibit them anywhere,” he said.