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Arkies, Get Your Guns 

All over the state, citizens are flocking to firing ranges to qualify to carry concealed weapons.

click to enlarge AT THE SHOOTING RANGE - SHERRI WALKER
  • Sherri Walker
  • AT THE SHOOTING RANGE

On a rural firing range south of Little Rock they stand, seven abreast, holstering cold steel. With the targets only six feet away, they seem absurd—like a firing squad at two paces—but they understand that this the way it will happen if it happens at all. They are afraid, and yet they are confident. And so on signal, they draw from their purses, belt holsters and what-have-you, and let loose a loud volley of lead.

One of them, a middle-aged woman on the end, can barely pull the trigger of the .38-caliber revolver she has just purchased, and is lucky to hit the target at all. She is getting some friendly help from the owner of John's Gun's just down the road. A few guns down, an experienced shooter with a large semi-automatic pumps all his rounds through a quarter-sized hole in dead center and holsters his weapon like he was sticking a hand in his pocket.

Most of them, sorry and great shots alike, will soon be licensed under a new law to conceal these weapons in their clothing and their cars. From there, its anyone's guess what will happen. Maybe the crime rate will go down. Or maybe it will go up, with people such as these killing each other over traffic disputes. So far, 3,000 Arkansans have applied for permits to carry concealed weapons, and with more than 300 new applications coming in every week, say the State Police, the number could go as high as 40,000.

Why, for God's sake? Arkansans are scared by crime — that's why. A study released last week revealed that Arkansas had the second-highest per capita felony crime rate in the country in 1993, behind the District of Columbia. And Little Rock, in recent years, has been named among America's three most violent cities. So as primitive as it sounds, out comes the old persuader to even up the score.

"The fact of the matter is that police cannot protect you—they never could," says John Wallis of North Little Rock, a vocal handgun advocate and member of the National Rifle Association who is applying for his own concealed weapon permit. "You are responsible for taking care of yourself, and this is one of he few ways to enable you do do that. I believe that our streets will be safer. It scares criminals to death when they don't know who's armed and who's not. It makes them a lot less likely to attack somebody."

Wallis, by the way, plans to pack a .380 semi-automatic or a .45—not both at the same time, mind you. Since the .380 is a lot lighter and half as thick, he will carry it in the warmer months when he's not wearing the kind of heavy clothing needed to conceal his .45. Under cover of winter, he will switch to the heavy artillery.

Another would-be concealer, Judy Barnett of Harrison, actually teaches the state-mandated course herself. Barnett, 41, says her students don't believe they are in much danger in Harrison, but mostly want the weapons for the occasional trips they must make to places like Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Since the law allows concealers to qualify with three different weapons, on any given day Barnett will be holstering pistols ranging in caliber from .25 to .40.

"It's a terrible situation that you feel like you have to carry, but for criminals, that's their job," says Barnett. "Using Mace is alright, but most individuals don't think about the way the wind is blowing when they use it. A criminal will think about it."

***

The law pushed by Sen. Bill Walters of Greenwood and signed this year by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker had overwhelming support, passing the Senate 30-0 and the House 75-11. Even liberals like Sen. Vic Snyder of Little Rock approved.

"Its clear to me that we have far too many guns in our society," says Snyder, "but I don't harbor any illusions that because they are illegal that people aren't carrying them. These are good business people — restaurant owners who put a gun in their pocket. Attorneys that get warnings from police."

Snyder and Tucker say they were sold on the bill because of all the exclusions it carries for people who clearly have no business carrying a firearm — drug addicts, the mentally ill, anyone who has ever been incarcerated, for example.

One of the few legislators who voted against the measure was Rep. Jim Argue of Little Rock. "I think guns are part of the problem, not the solution," he said. "It promotes a vigilante mentality that will lead to innocent victims. The whole idea of concealed weapons has a scary quality to it."

Argue says the bill passed because legislators live in fear of the NRA For its part, the NRA says it is generally pleased with the Arkansas law, but says it has one of the most stringent list of exemptions of any of the state laws. You can expect the NRA to chip away at those exemptions during future legislative sessions. The organization calls this process "reform."

***

People who fear concealed weapons — many police, for example — boil it down to this: The more weapons there are out there, the more innocent people are going to be killed by them. That seems commonsensical, but it might not be that simple.

For one thing, only Florida has had a concealed handgun law for any length of time — eight years — and it's hard to tell what if any affect the measure had had on crime statewide. For another, it appears that the law really isn't having that much of an impact on gun sales in Arkansas, because most of the permit seekers already have weapons, and have been concealing them illegally for years. Such was the case with many of the students at a recent weapons class at John's Guns.

On a cold November evening, about 15 people cram into the store to qualify themselves for the coveted carrying permit. A trio of business partners teach the course under the shingle of Arkansas Protection Consultants: Wayne Forrest, a U.S. deputy marshal, Lewis Webb, who works in security at Arkansas Children's Hospital, and John Teer, who owns the gun shop.

Many of the students were shy about talking, including a young female lawyer who wants to carry a .38 special in her purse. But others talked on the condition of anonymity.

"Your chances for getting into trouble now are quite a lot greater," said a middle-aged male postal worker from south of Sheridan, who was taking the weapons class with his wife. He worries about her because she works in a Pine Bluff medical office and has to take bank deposits from the office every day. People come up to the windows of her car when she is parked at red lights in downtown Pine Bluff, he says, and it scares her. The other big concern is their eight-year-old child, but they don't believe the child could hurt himself with the guns.

Both of them have been carrying weapons for the last four or five years. The license is just a formality.

***

Another student is a lab technician at the VA hospital in Little Rock. "I ride a Harley Davidson," he explains. "I did this so I can carry a gun while I'm riding—especially if my wife is with me. " Motorcycles don't protect you like a car does. "If it breaks down, you don't have any windows and doors to close," he says.

"And one of the reasons I wanted one is just to say that I have one," he said. He's qualifying with a Ruger .357 magnum.

After an hour's paperwork, fingerprints and picture-taking, the students settle in to a disconcerting lecture.

"Don't shoot anyone," chanted the instructor, deflating a few of the students right away. "You could be held criminally and civilly liable."

Students fought off sleep as the instructors read every single word of the concealed weapons law aloud, including a lengthy list of all the places where such guns are forbidden.

Obviously, you can't tote your gun into any police station, jail or courthouse. Any building with a state office in it is off limits, and that excludes virtually every office building in downtown Little Rock. Packing heat is forbidden at all public meeting places, polling places and public parks, unless the park is holding a firearms-related event. Athletic events are also a no-no for guns, as well as schools and colleges.

Any place that sells alcoholic beverages—whether or not you can drink them on the premises—is off limits. That means you can't take it into the grocery store in Little Rock because they probably sell beer. Even the local gas station-convenience store—a traditional target for criminals, is off-limits if they sell alcohol.

You can't carry a gun into a private home unless you have notified the occupants and received their permission. And anyone has the right to put up a sign banning concealed weapons on the premises. Smart businesses are starting to do that right now. Park Plaza, for example, the major Little Rock mall, will post no-gun signs on the doors this week. Most business called by Arkansas Times, however, did not return calls about the issue.

The weapon absolutely must be concealed at all times. That doesn't mean the bulge has to be hidden. But if a gun peeks out from under a sweater, or a jacket is haphazardly removed in a restaurant revealing a 9 mm, any citizen can file a complaint with the State Police that might result in the suspension of the offender's carry permit.

Even in the car, the weapon must stay out of view. Forrest says the State Police recently told him that every trooper is receiving in-service training on concealed weapons, and if they so much as see the barrel poking out from under a coat on the seat, they will draw down on you first and ask questions later, he says.

***

At this point, a hand goes up in the class. "I've got a question," says an irritated student. "Just where can you carry a concealed weapon?

"In your glove compartment," says Forrest. Oh boy.

In truth, the carry permits are a real pain in the ass to get. And expensive, too. Assuming you've already forked out the $250 to $600 needed for a weapon that will pass muster (the instructors rejected two because of safety concerns), you've got to pay $100 to the state police just for the application fee, and another $15 for the background check and $24 for an FBI fingerprint check. The weapons course itself will cost $75 to $125, and then you still have to pay $100 a year for the continued privilege of carrying the gun.

But despite the disappointing reality, the public still craves these permits.

At Sipes Gun Shop in Little Rock, 600 people are on a waiting list for the concealed weapons classes. Sipes is trying to meet the huge demand by building its own indoor range, but for now, they are driving their students all the way out to the Faulkner County Gun Club.

"We're just hoping that no accidents occur from people trying to take enforcement in their own hands," says Lt. John Hutchinson of the Little Rock Police Department. "It's easy to pull that trigger in the heat of the moment, but you've got to think about what you are shooting at."

In the next few months, all manner of things are likely to happen as a result of concealed weapon law—or perhaps the misunderstanding of it. Sandy Moore of Little Rock got a taste of what's to come Monday as she was standing in line at the Sears Automotive Center on University Avenue. Moore noticed that the elderly man in front of her had a huge revolver sticking out of his pocket in plain view. Naturally, she was afraid to say anything to him, and when she called the State Police, she says, they essentially told her to get used to it.

Some Arkansans are never going to get used to it, no matter how popular it is. Says Wallis: "All it will take for this law to be overturned during the next session would be for one person to have an error of judgement."

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