LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday that he'll sign a bill that would bar state and local law officers from helping enforce new and future federal gun restrictions — a move critics say would be unconstitutional and create confusion about which gun limits the state does recognize.
The new legislation, which is a scaled back version of a bill Hutchinson vetoed, declares invalid in the state any federal gun restrictions enacted on or after Jan. 1, 2021, that violate the constitutional right to bear arms. Lawmakers voted largely along party lines early Wednesday to send the measure to the Republican governor for his consideration.
"It is tough and sends a message that we will protect the 2nd Amendment in Arkansas, but it supports law enforcement and will not jeopardize our critical partnerships in public safety," Hutchinson said in a statement.
Republicans in Arkansas and elsewhere have sought to preempt any federal gun control measures that President Joe Biden's administration might pursue, despite questions about the constitutionality of such legal maneuvering.
Unlike the bill Hutchinson vetoed last week, the one passed Wednesday only deals with new restrictions and not ones that were put in place before this year. It also eliminates criminal penalties that would have been imposed on law enforcement officers who don't comply with the Arkansas statute.
Hutchinson, prosecutors and law enforcement groups said the previous bill would have jeopardized hundreds of criminal cases and threatened public safety.
Supporters of the nullification measures have compared them to states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana, despite the drug being illegal at the federal level.
"We are a country based on freedom and when our freedoms are threatened we must take action through the tools within our U.S. Constitution and our Arkansas constitution to protect those freedoms," Republican state Sen. Missy Irvin, a bill sponsor, said early Wednesday.
But opponents have called the bill ambiguous, noting it doesn't say who will determine which of the new restrictions violate the state constitution's and U.S. Constitution's right to bear arms. They've also said it would run afoul of the Constitution's clause that federal law supersedes state law.
"We are forgetting and neglecting a fundamental truth," Democratic state Rep. Ashley Hudson said Tuesday. "We as a state Legislature do not legislate federal policy."
Biden has called for tighter gun control measures, including a ban on the importation of assault weapons, but any new legislation would face an uphill climb in Washington. Instead, he has taken more limited executive action that includes efforts to crack down on "ghost guns," homemade firearms that lack serial numbers and can be purchased without a background check.
The reworked Arkansas measure prohibits state or local officials from enforcing any federal restrictions that conflict with the state constitution's right to bear arms or any other state law. But the measure does not prevent cooperation with federal authorities if the primary purpose isn't investigating or enforcing new federal gun restrictions.
The head of the state prosecuting attorneys association, which had urged lawmakers to uphold Hutchinson's veto, said the reworked measure addresses the group's concerns that the original nullification bill would have jeopardized ongoing criminal cases.
The executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association, which opposed the bill Hutchinson vetoed, said the group does not oppose the new version.
Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have introduced similar bills this year seeking to nullify federal gun laws. Several states passed nullification laws under former President Barack Obama, but judges have found them unconstitutional. So far, Arizona and Montana have enacted similar measures to nullify gun laws this year.
On Saturday, Hutchinson effectively approved a separate measure that restricts the federal regulation of guns manufactured in the state — allowing it to become law without his signature as he raised concerns about its constitutionality. The state House on Wednesday voted to recall another bill lawmakers sent to Hutchinson that would have required legislative ratification of any federal gun restrictions. The governor had raised similar concerns about the impact of that measure if it were enacted.
The issue has sharply divided Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature. Republican state Sen. Trent Garner, who participated remotely in Wednesday's proceedings, could be heard muttering "piece of garbage" after voting for the reworked bill and later called it a watered-down version of what the Legislature had already passed.
"It's better than nothing, but barely," he said.