Five months after the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act, a voter-approved ballot initiative, officially took effect, laws regarding handguns have been greatly expanded in Arkansas. But gun owners who register as medical marijuana patients are federally prohibited from purchasing or owning a gun.
On a recent morning, a lone silver-haired man practiced shooting his semi-automatic handgun inside a Tontitown gun range. He slowly fired off a round of bullets, stoped to study his target, a paper human silhouette in the distance riddled with holes, reloaded and took aim again.
But if this licensed gun-owner is a registered Arkansas medical marijuana patient and aims to to purchase a new gun for shooting practice from a licensed dealer, for example, David Rose Gun shop in Farmington? Operator Cheryl Rose says he will be in big trouble.
"The FBI will know you committed a perjured felony," she says. "You don’t want to do that."
Rose is referring to a federal law, which bars medical marijuana patients from purchasing a gun, or even owning one. Violators face up to 10 years in prison, and up to $250,000 in fines.
Licensed U.S. gun dealers are required by law to conduct federal background checks, asking every customer to fill out a federal "Firearms Transaction Record." On that form, applicants are required to answer yes or no to the question, "Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?"
Marijuana, along with heroin, LSD, methaqualone, peyote, and ecstacy remain outlawed in the U.S. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or ATF, classifies such drugs as having no currently accepted medical use, and a high potential for abuse. Regina Milledge-Brown is industry operations investigator and program manager in the ATF's public affairs division.
"Therefore, any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes," she says, "is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance, and is prohibited by Federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition."
It is also unlawful, Milledge-Brown says, for any person to sell or dispose of a firearm or any ammunition to any person if they have reasonable cause to believe that person is an unlawful user of a controlled substance. And marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
Even so, 10 states have legalized recreational marijuana, and 20 states have approved medical cannabis. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, last March, granted five state medical cannabis cultivation licenses. Those licenses haven't been awarded, but more than 5,500 Arkansans registered with the Arkansas Department of Health will eventually be able to purchase cannabis therapies to treat qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain, glaucoma, Alzheimer's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Robert Brech, general counsel for the Arkansas Department of Health, says he has been warning the public about the medical marijuana gun prohibition.
"I've been invited to talk to a number of groups around the state about medical marijuana," he says, "and I always bring it up and there are always questions. But it's clear under federal law that it's a Schedule 1 substance and illegal. So it's not something I would recommend, anyone getting a registration card if they plan to purchase or use firearms."
Gun ownership among U.S. medical marijuana users had its first legal test case in 2016, when a Nevada patient, barred by a dealer from purchasing a gun, challenged the federal statute before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The judge ruled the ban does not violate the Second Amendment.
According to Giffords Law Center, which advocates for stricter gun control, nearly a quarter of all gun sales were made through unlicensed sales. More than 60 gun shows will take place in Arkansas this year, where more private sales could expand given the pot prohibition.
"It could, but they also know that if they are in possession of it, they are in violation of the law," said Gretchen Davis, a licensed arms dealer with Thor Global Defense Group in Van Buren. "Gun owners, over the whole, follow the law."
The National Rifle Association has yet to take a position on the matter. Currently 17 states require universal background checks on all gun purchases. Arkansas does not.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.