Legislature considers opposing bills regarding pistol permits

Concealed Carry

At the request of Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack, the Baldwin County Commission on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution opposing two pieces of pending legislation that target how concealed-carry gun permits are issued statewide. Currently, the sheriff in each of Alabama’s 67 counties issues permits and collects revenue fees, but according to a synopsis of House Bill 39, each sheriff “may have different fees, forms and processes.”

If adopted, HB39 and a companion bill in the Senate, SB47, would “standardize” the process and “create a state concealed-carry permit information system by which relevant data may be maintained and provided to law enforcement.”

Notably, the bills would introduce lifetime permits for those who qualify, but would also place the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) in charge of the statewide database. Further, it redistributes revenue from fees previously collected by sheriffs, which they have been able to expend on training, equipment, supplies and other law enforcement purposes, historically.

In a letter to Commission President Billie Jo Underwood dated Feb. 21, Mack said the proposal could “dramatically affect” the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) and public safety. Calling the bills a “transfer of power,” Mack warned that if passed, they “will also remove any authority the sheriff has to revoke a permit based upon a criminal conviction, mental health issue or any other public safety interest.”

The lifetime permit-holders, who are currently non existent, would be monitored by “a non-workable system run from MONTGOMERY,” Mack emphasized, claiming “if an individual had a criminal charge following the issuance of the permit, the odds are great that the new offense would never be discovered.”

Additionally, Mack warned the proposed legislation would place more burdens upon each county court clerk and probate judge, who “would be required to monitor and submit various items from their office.” Regarding the statewide database, Mack argued it “would create a burden of approximately $1.2 [million] to $1.5 million in additional funding to ALEA to accomplish this.”

The sponsor of HB39, State Rep. Proncey Robertson of District 7, did not dispute it would create an additional level of statewide bureaucracy that would be funded by a portion of the permit fees. But he said the sheriffs would still maintain the same degree of discretion they have now in issuing permits, while “the main goal is not necessarily to track pistol permit holders, but identify those individuals who are prohibited from obtaining permits.”

Meanwhile, Robertson said the Legislative Services Agency has studied the financial impacts of the bill and determined it would be “revenue neutral” for sheriffs.

Sheriffs would still be entitled to 100 percent of the revenue from one- and five-year permits, but the statewide database would be funded with 60 percent of the revenue from sales of the lifetime permit. The bill also creates a new revenue stream for sheriffs, by imposing a $50 fine on anyone deemed prohibited from holding a permit after they are convicted of domestic violence or a violent felony, or are involuntarily committed to a mental health facility by a probate judge.

“The best we can tell with the numbers that are available, there are more people getting arrested and would get prohibited than would ever try to buy a lifetime permit,” Robertson said, adding in other states where lifetime permits are offered, about 25 percent of applicants seek them. “The rest of them are buying one- and five-year permits. So it’s really kind of an overreaction on [the sheriffs’] part, so what they are doing is asking the county commissions … to pass these resolutions.”

The bill includes a fee schedule, proposing a $150 fee for lifetime permit-holders over the age of 65, and $200 for everyone between 19 and 65.

“Forty percent of that, or $80, stays with the local sheriff,” he said. “$120 comes back to ALEA for the specific purpose of managing and maintaining the system. The sheriff can still use that revenue for any law enforcement purposes just like they do now, plus they will be gaining revenue for every individual who is fined because of a prohibition. In other words, we’re shifting the funding from the good guys — the law-abiding people who come in and want to buy a lifetime permit — to the bad guys. And it’s more informative for the officers on the streets to know who is prohibited.”

The National Rifle Association has endorsed the two bills, Robertson noted, while he also worked with ALEA “for more than a year” in crafting the plan, he said. But Mack said those he’s spoken to at ALEA have expressed no interest in managing such a statewide database as proposed.

“It removes the power of each individual sheriff to take an application, do the background [check], issue the concealed-carry permit and have certain specified procedures for the revocation of a permit,” he wrote in response to questions from Lagniappe. “Currently, individuals in Baldwin County can go to any of four locations and get all of the above completed and walk out of that location with a concealed-carry permit in their hand in approximately 10 minutes. By the procedures outlined in HB39, this would be extended days if not weeks and perhaps even months before an individual would get their final approval and permit. It would also transfer approximately 60 percent of the fee to [ALEA] to duplicate and maintain what the sheriffs are already doing.”

Robertson, who had a 27-year career in law enforcement before his election to the House two years ago, admitted it was “a pretty comprehensive change,” but said Mack’s characterization of the bill is misleading, as “it’s not changing anything for the sheriffs procedurally.”

“In essence, right now you have 67 different databases, 67 different processes and 67 different permit cards, so when an officer stops you in Decatur with a Baldwin County pistol permit, they have no idea if that is valid or not,” he said. “Imagine having 67 different driver’s licences. We’re talking about a person’s right to carry versus their prohibition, which is a huge step forward for officer safety and the public’s safety.”

A statewide standard, Robertson said, would allow an officer to “see a thumbs up or a thumbs down” when status checks are performed through a statewide database, indicating “either you are prohibited or you have a valid permit. And he could confirm that information because he would know the process was the same statewide, and the data was being kept in a secure location.”

Further, the sheriffs could immediately issue a valid, temporary permit, while a hard-copy permit would be mailed from ALEA to the permittee within weeks after issuance, just as driver’s licenses are.

Last year in Baldwin County, Mack said his office issued slightly more than 15,300 concealed-carry permits, generating revenue of “a little over $730,000.” Mack said he also denied 221 permit applications last year based on current court cases, conditions of probation and mental health issues. None of those denials were appealed.

In his letter to the County Commission, he also did not acknowledge the existence of House Bill 308, a competing piece of legislation being proposed by the 67 sheriffs as an alternative to the ALEA program.

Sponsored by State Rep. Shane Stringer of District 102, and others, HB308 would also create a statewide information database, but it would be “created, maintained and operated by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of all sheriffs in the state.” Unlike ALEA’s database, Stringer’s bill calls for the creation of a repository known as the Alabama Responding Officer Warning System (AROWS).

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office will be advised by the Alabama Sheriffs Association on certain aspects of the program and, along with general information about the permit holder and status of the permit, the AROWS repository would also include probate information and “any county jail records on a permit-holder showing recent arrests and dispositions of criminal cases that might not yet be reported to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center or other criminal records database.”

The repository would be funded by a pro-rata share from each of the 67 counties, with some costs offset by an additional permit fee of not more than 50 cents. It contains no provisions for the issuance of lifetime permits.

“I am open to a lifetime permit as long as there are safeguards in place to determine if an individual committed a violation during the time of the permit that can be reviewed,” Mack said. “There is no definitive language in HB39 as to how this would be done.”

In response to a question about privacy regarding a statewide repository full of sensitive information about law-abiding citizens, Mack said, “the information already exists among sheriffs” and stressed “it is law enforcement sensitive and not public. This just connects existing systems.”

HB308 includes a provision that any authorized public release of information from the repository would amount to a Class A misdemeanor.

Stringer, of Mobile County, also had a career in law enforcement before being elected to the Legislature two years ago, but he did not immediately respond to a request for more details about the intent of his bill. Mack said HB308 was still preliminary and had not yet been assigned to a committee for further discussion or approval.

“While there were some discussions about House Bill 308, there are still some negotiations in the process,” he wrote. “It is my understanding HB39 and SB47 will be in committee this Wednesday. As House Bill 308 continues to be finalized, I’m sure there will be more discussion on that bill if it moves forward.”

Mack said he intended to be in Montgomery Wednesday, when SB47 is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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