By Erica Thomas, Managing Editor

Several Alabama lawmakers have pre-filed bills to address Second Amendment rights in Alabama. The bills are intended to remove various restrictions on gun ownership currently levied by the state. But sheriffs across the state are speaking out against the proposed bills and at least one group in south Alabama is reaching out to lawmakers directly.

Senate Bill 1, Senate Bill 2, and Senate Bill 8, have been pre-filed for the 2022 regular session and have been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee where they await action. Bills of this nature are commonly referred to as Constitutional Carry.

SB 1 seeks to remove current restraints that prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons on one’s person or vehicle. The bill would allow the carrying of concealed weapons inside a vehicle. The bill would maintain the current restrictions which prohibit the purchase, sale, or possession of firearms by anyone convicted of a felony; as well as anyone who has been committed to a psychiatric institution or has been convicted of domestic assault. It would also continue to prohibit the concealing of firearms in courthouses, police stations, sporting events, and state buildings.

SB 2 and SB 8 both seek to create the Alabama Second Amendment Preservation Act, which would prohibit the state from enforcing federal restrictions on firearms. Since the National Firearms Act of 1934, on top of additional taxes and fees, there have been restrictions placed on various aspects of gun ownership; such as barrel length, attachments, types of ammunition, rate of fire, and use of suppression devices. Most of which can be bypassed with an ATF application, a $200 fee, and a prolonged waiting period.

SB 2 would declare all federal restrictions of firearms to be unconstitutional and would provide the possibility of legal action against any state agency that attempts to enforce federal firearms laws. Virtually identical legislation was filed by State Senator Gerald Allen in the 2021 regular session and passed the Senate with a vote of 22-5 but was later quashed in the House of Representatives.

There are also various similar bills pre-filed in the House of Representatives. Those bills are HB 6, HB 7, HB 13, and HB 14. Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R) said there will be movement on the Constitutional Carry bills in the 2022 regular session.

Permits and Public Safety

The issue comes down to what is known as “Constitutional Carry,” defined by supporters as the legal right in the United States to carry a firearm without a permit or license, believing that right to be enshrined by the Second Amendment. While the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2008 and 2010,  established a nationwide right to keep a gun at home for self-defense, constitutional carry is implemented at the state level rather than the federal level.

Deciding on the limits of the Second Amendment has always been difficult for legislators and the courts. Those that favor tighter gun control argue that if states relax or drop restrictions, the result will be more violence. Second Amendment advocates, on the other hand, say self-defense is exactly why they have a right to be armed.

Indeed, during a Supreme Court hearing this week on a restrictive New York gun law, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “The idea that you would need a license to exercise a right is unusual with regard to the Bill of Rights.”

Some law enforcement officers want to keep the permit process because they say it helps fight crime, helps protect the permit-holder, and is a source of much-needed revenue for public safety. 

St. Clair County Sheriff Billy Murray said changes to the concealed carry permit process in the state could impact public safety.

“Imagine a situation, and this has happened numerous times across the state, where if you stop a car and you encounter three or four people and they have firearms and they don’t have permits and a felony has been committed in some way, then you can do something about that,” Murray explained. “But if it’s going to be where there is no background check and you are not able by law to restrict felons or restrict people who can currently have a permit, then what can you do? You can’t do anything. So, I think it is a huge safety issue for us not to be able to vet and let the current system do what it’s intended to do.”

Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway hopes the bills that will be considered are not passed in 2022.

“A pistol permit makes sure that we’re only allowing those in good standing to be able to carry guns,” Pettway said. “Keeping guns out of hands of the criminals is something that we try and do every day and it’s hard. But when we give them the right to carry a gun, that hurts our fight every day when we go out there and try to protect the public. When we give a bad guy or allow a bad guy to be able to carry a gun, it puts us on a defensive.”

When asked if he thought criminals would follow the law and apply for a concealed carry permit, Pettway said he has had some criminals apply for a permit so he believes the process works.

“Now, those that have been caught before they got a pistol permit, they are not going to be able to get one,” said Pettway. “And we don’t want to see them with a gun and if we do catch them with a gun, we’re going to make sure they’re going to get the maximum amount of time.”

Public Safety Pushing Back

Wednesday morning, in the Mobile County Chiefs of Police meeting, which included 13 Chiefs of Police, Sheriff Sam Cochran, the District Attorney’s Office, the ABI, and the heads of some federal agencies, voted to send a letter to their local state lawmakers opposing any permit-less or “Constitutional Carry” bill.

“Murders in the United States were up 30% last year,” Chief Cochran said. “That’s the highest recorded increase since the FBI started keeping crime stats. We just believe this would contribute to that number more so if you had people carrying guns around without any kind of background check.”

Other Constitutional Carry bills have been introduced in Alabama in the past but have never made it out of house committees, despite support from the Alabama GOP, members of the Senate and House, and U.S Representatives. In February of 2021, Rep. Andrew Sorrell presented HB 405, which would have eliminated the need for pistol permits for Alabama citizens. The bill would go on to die in a House committee, but not before it received an endorsement from U.S Rep. Mo Brooks.

“The Second Amendment is clear, ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ Period,” Brooks said. “The Constitution doesn’t say the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed unless a state government disagrees.”

Cochran said there are stipulations to all rights.

“With Freedom of Speech, you don’t have the right to holler ‘fire’ in a theater,” Cochran added. “And religious freedom doesn’t mean you can have human sacrifices, nor does the Second Amendment give everybody the right to carry a concealed weapon.”

After nearly 47 years in law enforcement, Cochran said he supports law-abiding citizens having firearms. In fact, he has several guns himself, in addition to the ones he uses for work. With that said, his experience investigating crimes has made him believe some restrictions on guns are necessary.

“I’ve seen a lot of people killed over the years and I’ve seen a lot of violence,” said Cochran.

Cochran said “Constitutional Carry” is not a legal term and he pointed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2008 ruling that states have the right to restrict firearm ownership to prohibit “dangerous people” from having them.

“I’m a big opponent to it,” said Cochran. “What everybody frequently refers to as ‘Constitutional Carry,’ I’m opposed to that. I support concealed carry permits and I support the background check that is done with obtaining a concealed carry permit.”

Cochran said the sheriff of a county performing a background check is different than a gun seller performing a criminal history check.

“The sheriff sees that this might be the town drunk or been arrested for domestic violence several times, and only had the cases plead out to a non-domestic violence case,” Cochran explained. “And the sheriff is able to look at all of those background arrests. It could be a known drug user.”

Cochran also pointed out a very well-known killer that was captured and kept behind bars, thanks to a pistol permit violation: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. After McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, he was arrested on charges of driving without a license plate and illegal possession of a firearm. McVeigh’s pistol permit was not valid in Oklahoma. After sitting in jail for three days, McVeigh was identified as the bombing suspect. Cochran said if not for those charges, the suspect could’ve gotten away. He said similar cases happen in his county often.

“Just yesterday in Mobile, the city of Mobile chased a car down where they heard gunshots and they saw a car fleeing,” Cochran said. “They chased them and they fled from them but at the end of the day, they were only able to charge them with no pistol permit for the guns because they didn’t have a victim or anybody that was shot at. They wouldn’t have been able to charge them if not for a pistol permit.”

In Mobile County last year, 700 pistol permit applications were denied. If not for concealed carry permit process, Cochran said those 700 people would be carrying guns.

Following the Money

Critics suggest the sheriffs' objection really comes down to money since funds raised by the permitting process go to the local sheriff's office and is used to help cover public safety expenses - a charge Sheriff Murray does not deny.

"I can tell you I buy cars, I buy bulletproof vests,” Murray said. “So, certainly that issue would have to be addressed and I haven’t heard anything from anybody saying that if we do away with this, how we will buy cars and buy vests?"

The money for pistol permits in Mobile County goes towards a variety of things. Sheriff Cochran said it is used for equipment, college scholarships, special programs, training, the Yellow Dot program, and drug investigations.

But, Cochran insisted, “It’s not about the money, it’s about public safety."

Alabama passed a law earlier this year, allowing for lifetime permits to be purchased for $300. Those permits will likely not be available until sometime in 2022, and Murray and other sheriffs across the state are not sure how revenue will be impacted by the change.

Following You

Pettway said another purpose of a pistol permit is to allow citizens to travel to other states with their firearms.

“Every state doesn’t operate by the Second Amendment,” Pettway claimed. “We’re trying to protect you by making sure that if you go somewhere, and they require you to have a permit, that we have furnished the opportunity for you to be able to get a permit and carry a gun in those other states. So, we’re looking out for you by doing that because if you go somewhere else, you could possibly be locked up for carrying a gun and not having a permit.”

While some states do prohibit carrying firearms openly in public, there are no states that do not follow the Second Amendment in some fashion. However, there are some states that do not honor permits issued from counties in Alabama. The states that do honor the Alabama permits are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

States that have enacted similar permitless laws similar to what some Alabama lawmakers are trying to do are Alaska. Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota (for residents only), Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. 

Craig Monger contributed to this report.