The darkest day yet at the Arkansas Capitol

Gun Rights

Oh, Arkansas. What a terrible day we had.

On March 3, 2021, Governor Hutchinson said he would sign both a voter ID requirement and a stand your ground law that will let Arkansans kill anyone they deem a threat, even if they could have simply walked away instead. The former will suppress the votes of black and brown people. The latter will kill them.

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The Republican supermajority in the Arkansas legislature pushed these measures through as a show of brute force, a chest-beating spectacle of complete dominance over Democrats. They did it because they could.

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And despite the veto hopes of some optimistic progressives, the governor made no move to soften the blow. His lip service about the need to pass hate crime legislation (we’re one of only three states without it) seemed ill-timed today, coming at the same time he was announcing his endorsement for voter suppression and the kill-at-will bill. Hutchinson’s empty cheerleading for an already doomed hate crime bill lacked energy, its failure a foregone conclusion in a legislative session being steered by the lawmaker equivalent of the rowdy kids’ table. And anyway, signing laws that put the rights and lives of marginalized populations in direct danger while in the same breath saying we need a hate crime law to punish those who target victims based on their immutable traits? Not wildly convincing. Kind of insulting, actually.

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To be fair, Hutchinson doesn’t have much leverage here. A veto would almost certainly get overturned by the Republican supermajority that seems to have run away from all reason. Extremists like Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Ozark), sponsor of the license to kill Senate Bill 24, and Rep. Mark Lowery (R-North Little Rock), sponsor of the vote suppressing House Bill 1112, are doing their best to pull Arkansas so far to the right that we’re likely to slide off the map.

Will we finally stop clinging to the trope of Hutchinson as the sensible Republican, the affable guy who will sit down with the left and the right and hear them out? Hutchinson will listen, sure, but he will never flout the party line. Signing bills to codify voter suppression and clear the way for gun owners to do whatever they feel like are perfectly on brand. Signing them while grinning and cracking jokes, even more so. A loyal NRA foot soldier and willing driver in the Republican party’s rightward lurch, Hutchinson was never going to do anything today but exactly what he did.

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During Wednesday’s very brief press conference, the governor also took the opportunity to trash the federal stimulus checks that I highly doubt many real Arkansans, R or D, would refuse. The stimulus package, put forward by Democrats, would also send more help to the unemployed and people facing eviction or hunger. The plan is unfair to Arkansas, Hutchinson said, because our unemployment numbers are relatively low, which means people in other states would get more unemployment assistance. (Considering the disastrous state of Arkansas’s unemployment system right now, it’s probably best not to trust Arkansas’s rosy employment figures. With chronically busy phone signals, hours-long lines wrapped around unemployment offices and stories of Arkansans finally giving up on ever claiming unemployment insurance after months of trying, it’s a safe bet that these numbers don’t mean what Hutchinson says they mean.)

Meanwhile, right upstairs in the House chamber at the Arkansas Capitol, representatives were arguing a near-total abortion ban that makes no exceptions for rape or incest. It’s as extreme a ban as you’ll find, although not the first of its kind. A few states already beat Arkansas to the punch. As Rep. Ashley Hudson (D-Little Rock) pointed out, laws in those states will surely beat Arkansas’s to the U.S. Supreme Court. The abortion ban cleared the House, of course, and Hutchinson has indicated he will sign it.

Arkansas lawmakers well know that stand your ground laws kill people, and that black people suffer the most. Even the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, known for its conservative bent, published a story telling them so. Those lawmakers also know that voter fraud isn’t real, and that forcing people to secure a government ID before they can get a ballot will disenfranchise lots of would-be voters, but mainly Democrats, which is obviously the point. They know women in desperate situations will have abortions, legal or no. Hutchinson knows these things, too.

The only good news on such a bleak day is this. Most Arkansans don’t support these punitive laws that stand to rob Arkansans of their rights and possibly their lives. Polls consistently show that even in blood red Arkansas, most of us think our gun laws need to stay the same or get stricter, and that the U.S. Supreme Court made the right call in 1973 when it made abortions legal. Until all these folks vote, though, extremists run the show. And today, getting all these folks to vote got a good bit harder.

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