Alabama could soon become the latest state to allow people to carry concealed handguns in public without first getting a permit.
The Alabama Senate on Thursday voted 23-6 for the House-passed bill that would abolish the current permit requirement. The legislation now returns to the House of Representatives where members will decide whether to accept Senate changes to the bill.
The proposal is championed by gun rights advocates who call it “constitutional carry” and argue that people should not have to get a permit, which requires a background check and a fee, to carry a concealed handgun. Opponents, including state sheriffs and others in law enforcement, said the permits help combat crime and enhance public safety.
“It wasn't meant for us to pay a fee to be able to arm ourselves to protect our families, our properties. It's a right," Republican Sen. Gerald Allen said in reference to the Second Amendment.
Republicans, who hold a lopsided majority in the chamber, cut off debate after an hour and forced a vote on the bill.
“We are fixing to open ourselves up to the wild, wild west,” Sen. Rodger Smitherman, a Democrat from Birmingham, said. “You are going to literally have conflicts settled in wide-open shootouts because everybody is going to have their gun on them."
Proponents of the bill noted there are 21 states that allow concealed weapons in public without a permit, while opponents pointed to the state's already high rate of gun violence.
Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, a Democrat from Mobile, said lawmakers who vote for the bill will have “blood on their hands.”
Alabama in 2020 had the country’s fifth-highest rate of gun-related deaths – including suicides and murders — with 1,141 deaths, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ve got a war going on right here in Alabama and we want to add fuel to the fire,” Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, a Democrat from Birmingham, said.
The Alabama Sheriffs' Association opposed the bill arguing that abolishing the permits will be detrimental to public safety. During public hearings, law enforcement officials said the permits are a tool officers use daily to remove weapons from the hands of individuals who should not have them in the first place.
Senators made a number of changes to the bill in an effort to alleviate some of law enforcement's concerns.
One change would allow an officer, who had a reasonable suspicion that a person was about to engage in criminal conduct, to temporarily take the weapon and run it through databases to see if the gun was stolen and to also check the person's criminal history. Another change would steer up to $5 million in state funds to sheriffs’ offices to compensate for the funding loss from permit fees.
A new state database is under development to help officers flag people who are prohibited from possessing a handgun. The president of the Alabama Sheriffs’ Association has said he does not think the database will effectively replace the safety checks provided by the permits because of inevitable gaps in data collection.
Alabama currently requires people to get a concealed carry permit, which requires a background check, to carry a handgun under their clothes or in a purse or bag when they go in public. The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Shane Stringer of Citronelle, would do away with the requirement, although people could still choose to get a permit if they wanted.
It would also do away with the current requirement for people without concealed carry permits to keep handguns unloaded and secured when driving.
The House of Representatives could give the legislation final approval as soon as next week. Stringer said he is still reviewing the Senate changes to the bill but is inclined to urge the House to accept them.
Stringer, a former sheriff's office captain, disputed the value of the permit requirement in stopping crime.
“The fact of the matter is we're dealing with evil-hearted people out in our communities that are doing the bad stuff and we cannot legislate an evil-hearted person,” Stringer said.
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