A potentially dangerous mixture of guns and alcohol could follow Texarkana, Ark.'s creation of a downtown entertainment district where outdoor drinking is allowed.
Enacted during this year's Arkansas General Assembly, Act 812 allows cities to designate areas as entertainment districts where they can allow public alcohol consumption. But the new law is silent regarding concealed carry of handguns in them, leaving to cities' interpretation whether they can stop it.
Texarkana is one of several Arkansas cities that have quickly embraced the new law as a way to create entertainment destinations akin to the Fort Worth, Texas, Stockyards or New Orleans' French Quarter, where people can move about outdoors with alcoholic beverages in hand.
But little attention appears to have been paid to the law's ramifications regarding guns. State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, who sponsored Act 812, said the issue did not come up in debate.
Asked whether local governments could prohibit concealed carry in entertainment districts, city officials in Mountain Home, Texarkana and Fayetteville responded with uncertainty or said their hands were tied. Officials in other Arkansas cities considering entertainment districts—El Dorado, Little Rock, Pine Bluff and Bentonville—did not respond to inquiries.
The Mountain Home City Council created an entertainment district June 20. In response to questions from the Gazette, Mountain Home Mayor Hillrey Adams said in an email "there may be some tweaking of the ordinance to handle such matters in the future."
"We currently don't prohibit or allow by ordinance the act of carrying a handgun in our entertainment district. State laws and the U.S. Constitution give citizens gun rights. We are exploring whether we can or cannot control concealed handguns in the district through local law," Adams said.
Texarkana City Attorney George Matteson referred to a state statute that prohibits cities, towns and counties from enacting any ordinance regulating "the ownership, transfer, transportation, carrying, or possession of firearms."
Fayetteville is also in the process of establishing an entertainment district. In an email, Fayetteville Assistant City Attorney Blake Pennington said the city has no options in the matter.
"I don't believe we would have any authority under state law to restrict either the open carry or concealed carry of firearms within an entertainment district. When the restrictions talk about 'establishments' that sell or serve alcohol we don't believe that would extend beyond the selling establishment's private property to public property outside. The state legislature has been clear that public property such as streets and sidewalks are intended to be free from such regulations," Pennington said.
Under current law, a concealed carry licensee in Arkansas may or may not be allowed to bring a gun into an establishment that serves alcohol, depending on what sort of license they have and what the establishment allows.
Arkansans who have basic concealed carry licenses may not take handguns into bars or restaurants that serve alcohol, or into many other situations such as courthouses and athletic events. But with additional training, they may get enhanced licenses with fewer restrictions, allowing them to carry concealed handguns in those places and others—unless signs are posted saying they cannot.
The law may permit cities to post such signs around entertainment districts, according to an attorney general's opinion cited by Kerrie Lauck, legal counsel with the Arkansas Municipal League. Among other services, the League provides legal advice and model ordinances to member cities, including Texarkana.
Lauck pointed to an opinion on what counts as a publicly owned building or facility in regard to concealed carry law.
"This would be the general advice we would give a city and advise the city to consult the city attorney for any specific questions concerning the application within a newly-designated entertainment district," Lauck said in an email.
Concealed carry licensees may not bring handguns into publicly owned buildings or facilities. Enhanced carry licensees may unless a sign prohibiting doing so is posted.
In the opinion Lauck cited, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge states that these rules apply to buildings, parks or locations owned by cities, municipalities or counties and paid for with public funds.
Because the law allows "the person or entity exercising control over" any place to post signs prohibiting carrying weapons, Rutledge concludes that cities, municipalities or counties may post such signs at the entryways of such buildings, parks or locations. The opinion does not specify, but "locations" could include public streets and sidewalks, as well as city-owned properties such as Texarkana's Front Street Festival Plaza.
In any case, the state can revoke a concealed carry license held by anyone found guilty of committing an alcohol-related offense while carrying a handgun.
The possibility of guns and alcohol mixing in a downtown entertainment district does not sit well with Joey Hargrove, a state-certified concealed carry instructor in Texarkana.
"I don't think it's a good idea," Hargrove said. "I just feel like something bad's looking for a place to happen. It's just a matter of time before that blows up in everybody's face."
Garner, however, is more optimistic.
"That's a false kind of fear that comes with weapons. If you're drinking and you have a weapon on you, that obviously can cause issues, but 99% of people who carry with the enhanced or concealed carry carry legally, and they follow the applicable rules, and in that case they've shown themselves to be good gun owners. I don't think it's going to be a major issue in any real sense," Garner said.