Aldermen George Stepps, Glen Brown and Thelma Walker questioned the mayor and police chief at Tuesday’s city council meeting over an open-carry march held Saturday in downtown Pine Bluff.
“I got a number of calls from people Saturday telling me that armed individuals were walking up Main Street with a police escort,” Stepps said. “Did these people have a permit to march? If we get protection for people that don’t even live here but our club owners can’t get police coverage, then something is wrong.”
The march organizers, Arkansas Carry, interpret Act 746, which was passed by the Arkansas State Legislature in 2013, to mean that while on a journey from one county to another within the state, an individual may possess a firearm in either a concealed-carry or open-carry manner.
About 20 people marched from the Sahara Shrine Temple north on the Main Street sidewalk to the Jefferson County Courthouse and back again. Similar marches have been held elsewhere in the state.
“Under Act 746, the issue of whether open carry is allowed is unclear,” said Police Chief Jeff Hubanks.
“People called me and told me about the march and some of them said they felt intimidated,” said Stepps, who represents Ward 4. “If the law is unclear, then why were they allowed to come to our town with guns strapped to their waist like this is the Wild West or something?”
Hubanks said that while the law is unclear, law enforcement throughout the state are unsure about how to proceed.
“Telling them that they can’t march is a violation of their freedom of speech,” Hubanks said. “I felt that it made a lot more sense to let them come down here and have their march under the eyes of our officers and then move on than to deny them the chance to march and then end up with a whole lot of their supporters down here saying that their rights were denied.”
Stepps said he remained unconvinced that the right action was taken.
“Having our police department there makes people think that the police have bought into the open-carry law,” Stepps said.
Hubanks said he consulted Jefferson County Prosecutor S. Kyle Hunter and City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott and both said that absent any criminal intent on the part of the open-carry individual, there is no legal standing for the police to arrest them.
“I’m not going to have my officers arresting people when I know that no charges will be brought against them,” Hubanks said.
Brown, who represents Ward 3, said he found fault with Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s decision to allow the march and Hubanks’ decision to authorize the police escort.
“In these mall shootings that have happened, it has been just one gunman,” Brown said. “We have shop owners and patrons who were out on Main Street Saturday with 20 people carrying guns near them. You (Hubanks) say that it is OK for people to carry loaded guns into our city. This is not ‘Gunsmoke’ in this town. These people should have been checked to see if they have a concealed carry permit. If not, they should have been told to leave.”
Brown asked when Hubanks spoke to Hunter and Hadden-Scott about the open-carry march.
“If it had been timely, then it would have leaked out to the council that this was going to happen,” Brown said. “I didn’t know about it until I started getting phone calls from my constituents.”
Walker, who represents Ward 1, asked who gave Arkansas Carry permission to march in Pine Bluff.
“I did,” Hollingsworth said.
“Mayor, you said before that Sheriff [Gerald] Robinson’s officers were not working in clubs. Well, I see they weren’t escorting these people on Saturday either,” Walker said in reference to a previous council debate over Hubanks’ decision not to allow PBPD officers to work for private clubs when they were off duty.