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Senate backs toughened protections for gun owners

Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, who was one of six votes against a constitutional amendment  reacts during debate of the constitutional amendment that would expand gun rights in Louisiana, Monday, April 9, 2012 in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/The Advocate, A
Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, who was one of six votes against a constitutional amendment reacts during debate of the constitutional amendment that would expand gun rights in Louisiana, Monday, April 9, 2012 in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/The Advocate, Arthur D. Lauck) MAGS OUT; INTERNET OUT; NO SALES; TV OUT; NO FORNS; LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT
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BATON ROUGE, La. — The Louisiana Senate agreed Monday to rewrite the state's constitutional protections for gun and weapon owners so that it would be harder to restrict the use of firearms.

Critics say the change could nullify most of the state's gun limits and open the door to guns in schools, bars and churches. But there was little opposition in the Senate to the proposal backed by the National Rifle Association.

The Senate sent the measure to the House with a 31-6 vote. If approved there, it would require approval by voters in a statewide election before it could be enacted.

Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, described his proposed constitutional change as ensuring the state has strong protections for gun owners. Because the language would be written into the Louisiana Constitution, it would limit future lawmakers' ability to write restrictions on weapons, like concealed handguns.

The constitutional language would be "a standard more in favor of gun possession, correct?" asked Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.

"That's correct. We would have the strongest gun protection law in the nation," Riser replied.

The bill was opposed by the district attorneys association, chiefs of police and higher education leaders. They argued it could open to court challenge the dozens of existing prohibitions on guns, such as those at schools, on college campuses, in churches and in the Louisiana Capitol. They also said it could leave lawmakers unable to enact gun-free zones.

Only members of the Legislature's black caucus voted against the measure. No one spoke against the bill on the Senate floor.

"I share your interests in these rights that you espoused. But I'm really concerned about the legal interpretation," said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who questioned whether guns could be allowed at universities, for example.

Riser said the constitutional protection wouldn't trump private property rights, so bars and churches would be able to enact their own limits. As for colleges, Riser said if higher education leaders could show a "compelling interest to not have a firearm there," they'd be able to maintain the current restrictions.

Currently, the Louisiana Constitution guarantees the "right of each citizen to keep and bear arms," but allows the "passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of weapons concealed on the person."

Under Riser's proposal, the language allowing laws to prohibit concealed weapons would be removed and citizens would be guaranteed the right to bear arms "for defense of life and liberty and for all other legitimate purposes." Any restrictions would be subject to "strict scrutiny," a legal standard that lawyers say is a tougher standard for the state to meet.

Lawyers testifying in support and in opposition to Riser's bill disagreed on the implications.

Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, who voted for the bill, asked Riser to rewrite the ballot language for voters to be more specific about the proposal. The bill would ask voters if they support a constitutional change "to protect as fundamental the right of individuals to keep and bear arms?" Cortez said the measure would do far more than that.

Online:

Senate Bill 303 can be found at www.legis.state.la.us