Life after the Arkansas 91st General Assembly: A Letter to My Friends

Many of us are disappointed that HB1249 and SB724 (Acts 562 and 859, respectively) passed into law, and we’re even more deflated by the various sorts of hypocrisy that surrounded the passage of the senate bill. Together, these bills constitute some of the most dangerous and regressive campus-carry laws in the country: every data-set gathered by reputable researchers over two decades has shown conclusively that more guns in any environment leads to more gun-violence in that environment.

And the bills were delivered to us by legislators who refused to listen to the affected constituency.

So they are also broadly unpopular bills: every campus in our state over the past four years has unanimously opted out of allowing guns on their campuses. Our Boards don’t like it. Our faculty detest it. Law-enforcement officials came out against it. Our students feel the same way. And their parents were outraged by it. And judging by my own social-media feeds, I’d say these parents are still angered by it, and questioning whether their own children will ever attend our university.

So who wanted it? The NRA and the legislators that the NRA funds and grades according to their votes.

Of course, the deep unanimity against HB1249 angered its sponsor, Representative Charlie Collins. So, he did what any frustrated and over-reaching legislator would do: he filed a bill that removed our campuses’ ability to govern their policies regarding guns, and in a series of seven amendments that ranged from the absurd to the subservient, and a Senate Bill that removed athletics and daycares from the madness of this bill, HB1249 and SB724 found their final form: a campus-carry policy that is one of the most regressive in the country.

And it might be, depending on how a few other bills in other states turn out, the most regressive policy in the country.

But the NRA has recently turned its attention to college campuses, and they are having some success. At any rate, Arkansas has now become the poster-state for the NRA’s bid to place guns in every nook and cranny of every college campus in our country. And the mood at the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, must be joyful.

But make no mistake about it: the quality of higher education will be compromised among these guns. And these compromises won’t be immediately visible, clearly quantifiable. They will concern the culture of the classroom: what we teach, the books we assign, the history we delineate, the futures we imagine. That will change. Scan through any list of the top-25 public institutes of higher education, and you’ll find none that have Arkansas’s regressive campus-carry policies.

That, I would suggest, is not a coincidence. Actions have consequences, and an overall weakening of higher education will come from this legislation.

That’s not how politics always works, but that’s how it worked this time. And we came out on the losing end. It will not always be this way.

So, what do we do now?

Simple, if difficult. We get together in our various groups, and vent, complain, and recover. Each of us will do it in different ways, according to different recovery-schedules, and it’s important that we each be given the leeway we need to put that recovery in motion and to see it to its conclusion.

Some will want to get back to work immediately; others, not. It doesn’t matter. When it comes to self-care, to each his own. That’s the cardinal rule.

But in the immediate wake of the 91st, certain emotions, for me at least, stand out. That righteous indignation I feel? It’s justified. That anger? Of course. That disdain for certain legislators and deep appreciation for others? Yep.

If you’re a little overwhelmed by the full spectrum of human emotion rising up within you just now, it only means that you’re paying attention. And for that I’m thankful.

What Rebecca Solnit wrote too: “We hope for results, but we do not depend on them.”

So, going forward, what do we depend on? Whom do we trust? And what shall we do?

First of all, thank-you’s are in order. Reach out to those who helped, and tell them how much it mattered because, as I hope to show, it did matter.

Why? Because thank-you’s are one of the primary ways we build relationships, and built relationships are what drive people to the polls to cast their votes for those candidates who support our vision of Arkansas’s future. Most of us have been showing our gratitude for some time now, but in the immediate aftermath, it’s harder to do it, and yet, it’s most important that we do it at this precise moment.

From my corner, then, I want to thank everyone who opposed these bills. Many of us have been working against it and its various iterations since it appeared at the beginning of Representative Collins’ career. But this year was different: opponents of the bill showed up from every walk of life and from every quarter of the state. People worked publicly and privately, day and night, to help keep the University free of guns. I was at times overwhelmed by the depth of the support that I felt and the willingness to work that I saw at the grass-roots level.

I have made new friends and forged strong allies, and speaking honestly, my life now is far richer than it was in January when the 91st convened.

Second: we have accomplished one of the goals that was important to me from the beginning — we have left a long, detailed, articulate, and multi-platformed record of our disapproval of this unpopular bill. And it is not just a narrative against the gun-bill; it has become a compelling testimony for sanity, community, and compassion.

We have forced some of our public figures to hold irrational positions that I believe will ultimately work to our favor.

Patience now is the important virtue to cultivate.

But we have, in effect, written together the story of our dissent, and the story of our march toward a mutually supportive way of living together. A comparatively small group of us from around the state leveraged our opportunities when we saw them arise, and we forced this sloppy piece of law-making onto the national stage, if only for a moment. Arkansas was rightly ridiculed for its foolish gun-legislation, and our opposition was partly responsible for that ridicule.

This history will serve us well in the future.

Third: we have identified and are organizing one of the largest bodies of opposition I have seen in this state since I arrived in 1986. This is partly due, of course, to the Presidential election, and we have much work to do at the organizational level, but we are growing the numbers, and we are coming together, united in several goals. Having come of age during the Sixties (a different time with different goals, methods, and ideas of leadership, I realize), I would also suggest that finding and growing groups of people who share general sensibilities will provide the basic groundwork we need for specific political change.

That has happened here in Arkansas, and many, very talented people are making certain that the political energy we feel now will be sustained as the future unfolds. I am very excited to be a part of that future and to work with these gifted people in any way that I can.

Fourth, and finally: as we head toward the next round of state elections in 2018, the 92nd Arkansas General Assembly in 2019, and the national elections in 2020, the various groups that have formed in our state — Pantsuit Nation, Ozark Indivisible, the local and national gun-violence prevention groups, the educational alliances, the reproductive justice groups, to name only a few — will need to talk to one another, decide on common goals, assign various tasks to various groups, have the necessary arguments, and be good neighbors after those arguments are done because we are all on the same team — that must always be the operative assumption.

The American writer, Annie Dillard, once spoke of the writing life in terms that address just as clearly the communal and political life that we now embrace, keeping in mind that we will confront a long run of victories and defeats: “The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.”

We will work together, then, through all of the ups and downs, through all of the mosquitoes, and we will make progress toward our shared goals.

Of that I am certain.

So, take whatever break you need, figure out ways to conserve your energy and sanity over the long haul, grow your stores of patience, and we’ll keep in touch.

I am proud to call all of you my friends.

Sidney Burris