A group of advocates for the open carry gun laws have planned to equip themselves with a sidearm enjoy and a normal day of dining and shopping in the city on Saturday, March 29.
"It is not a march, it is not a demonstration," said Marti Suchsland, event organizer. "We are there for an open carry walk and to educate people. We will be eating lunch in Eureka Springs and then do some shopping and just carrying on like normal people."
The group, Northwest 746, plans to meet near Basin Park and walk around the city, but they will not enter any building or place that prohibits carrying firearms, such as government buildings or private businesses with warning signs, Suchsland said.
"People carry their weapons in secure holsters, and they are never taken out of their holsters, unless of course there is an incident and that has not happened yet, and we don't want that to happen," she said.
She also said she has gotten permission from Eureka Springs police and that law enforcement officers often accompany the group on their walks.
Police Chief Earl Hyatt said he has heard of the group and their intentions, but did not know any hard details on their plans. He added that he does not believe carrying a handgun is a punishable offense, unless someone commits a crime with it, or has the intent to do so. He also said that anyone could openly carry a rifle or shotgun and there are no laws prohibiting it, but a handgun is a different classification of weapon.
Northwest 746 is affiliated with the Patriots of Act 746, said group member Janis-Marie Horsley. The group believes that the 2013 ArkansasAct 746 allows citizens who legally own a firearm to openly carry it as well.
Horsley classified three different terms for carrying firearms. The first is constitutional carry, meaning that anyone who can own a gun can carry it openly or concealed. The second is open carry, meaning -- with a license -- anyone can carry a handgun openly or concealed. The third is concealed carry, meaning only licensed carriers can legally carry their weapons secreted on their person. She also said she would prefer a constitutional carry law, though her group advocates for an open carry.
Suchsland has been on three of the organization's 30 open carry or constitutional carry walks, and they have had no incidents, she said. Their first walk was in Fort Smith and their next one is scheduled for Saturday, March 1 in Fayetteville.
"As people were added across the state, we picked and chose reliable people to organize local groups with support from the main group," Gary Epperson, creator of Patriots of Act 746, stated in correspondence. "We are not a protest group, however with Attorney General McDaniel completely avoiding the entire changes in the law, we were not going to allow the state to use bully tactics to suppress the legislator's intent."
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel wrote a legal opinion stating his interpretation of the recent act did not permit open carry.
"I do not interpret Act 746 as authorizing so-called open carry," McDaniel wrote. "It is my opinion that Act 746 does not itself permit a person to possess a handgun outside of his or her vehicle or other mode of transportation while on a journey outside his or her county of residence."
He continued to write that the act allows people to carry weapons in their vehicles when on the legal definition of a journey, which is a trip outside of a person's county of residence. It also changes the mental state required to support a conviction for carrying a weapon. The weapon carrier must have the intent to use the weapon illegally if they are to be convicted of any crime for carrying it.
However, others have different interpretations, including a law professor, student and attorney.
"Last year, the Arkansas legislature passed a new gun bill that supposedly made only technical changes but may, in fact, have legalized carrying a gun, openly or concealed, without a license," wrote Laurent Sacharoff, associate professor of law at the University of Arkansas, and Jacob Worlow, candidate for juris doctor at the university. "The result was likely unintended by most of the legislature or the governor, who signed the bill, but the language seems to point in that direction. In fact, many prosecutors including our prosecutor here in Washington County have interpreted the statute basically to have legalized carrying a gun in almost all circumstances."
Attorney Whitfield Hyman, from King Law Offices, also disagrees with the attorney general. On a blog on his employer's website, he stated his opinion with the disclaimer that it was not legal advice and for educational purposes only, and that the governor, state police and multiple county sheriffs had contrary positions to his interpretation.
"The real expansions have taken place under Section 2 of Act 746, not Section 1 where the changes to the journey clause were made," Hyman wrote. "Section 2 of Act 746 amends 5-73-120 which prohibits carrying a weapon. To be convicted under this statute, the prosecutor must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that the defendant possessed a handgun [or any other weapon mentioned in the statute] with a purpose to attempt to unlawfully employ the handgun against a person. If one of those elements is not met, then you cannot be convicted of carrying a weapon."
Northwest 746 restricts its membership to individuals without a history of mental problems or felony criminal charges, Suchsland said. If anyone wanted to join the group, he or she would have to be vetted and invited. But group members encourage people who want to walk and carry a sidearm or approach them to ask a question to do so.
"We want to grow slowly and carefully," Suchsland said about acquiring membership to Northwest 746. "But anybody can come and walk the streets of Eureka Springs; we are not anything special, we are just a group of organized people."
She added that anyone in the group or not who is arrested is on their own and acting unlawfully and not cooperating with the police is not endorsed by the group. She also said she is aware the presence of guns, even secured in holsters, is enough to threaten some people.
But, she continued, that fear is something they will have to deal with because it is her Second Amendment right to carry a weapon.