Alabama’s sheriffs are speaking out about what they call serious concerns with the state’s gun laws, according to Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor.
Flanked at the Russell County Courthouse Tuesday morning by a dozen sheriffs from Morgan County in the north to Marengo County in the south, Taylor used recent Louisiana theater shooter Rusty Houser, a former Phenix City resident, as an example of how legislative changes to Alabama’s gun laws have handcuffed law enforcement’s ability to protect the public.
Houser, who killed two people then himself on July 23 in a Lafayette, La., movie theater, was denied a concealed carry permit by the Russell County Sheriff’s Office in 2006. The Alabama legislature changed the law in 2013 to make it easier to get a concealed carry permit. Before 2013, the law said the sheriff “may” issue the permit, but the new law changed the word to “shall” issue a permit.
Houser was denied his concealed carry permit by Taylor and then-Sheriff Tommy Boswell based on previous arrests for domestic violence and arson. Houser was not convicted of either charge, but in 2006 the sheriff’s office was able to use those legal issues to deny the permit.
“When they changed the word from ‘may’ to ‘shall,’ the sheriff has to issue the permit unless there is a felony conviction,” Taylor said. “If he had walked into our office last month under the same set of circumstances, I would not have been able to deny him that permit. You have taken the discretion away from the sheriffs.”
Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin asked the toughest question of the day about the Houser comparison.
“Can y’all imagine what the conversation would be had the law been in place and Sheriff Taylor would have given him a pistol permit to carry it across the state line?” Franklin asked. “Can you imagine what the conversation would have been nationwide regarding our laws? If he took an Alabama pistol permit lawfully across state lines and murdered people. What would your questions be? It would be a completely different situation.”
“That case is such a poster child for what we have been trying to say the last several years about public safety and not doing away with backgrounds checks of people who want to put guns in cars,” Taylor said. “ … I am not trying to say we could have stopped it. What I am trying to say is, looking at the current concealed carry laws, he could have gotten a permit to carry that gun and the Alabama law would have allowed him to ride around with that gun in his car.”
Under the current Alabama law, a sheriff can deny a permit, but it comes with too many strings and is likely to be overturned in District Court.
“We have to justify that and it goes to an appeal process,” Taylor said. “A judge still has to look at it. If I can’t justify it other than it is my gut feeling that this guy does not need a permit, it is probably going to get overturned and this guy is going to get a permit.”
Houser legally purchased the gun he used in the Louisiana theater shooting from a Phenix City pawn shop. The federal background check on Houser did not reveal a history of mental illness.
Taylor and his fellow sheriffs also are concerned about proposed legislation that the Alabama lawmakers are considering. Now under Alabama law, it is illegal to carry a handgun in your vehicle without a conceal carry permit. Alabama legislators are considering legislation that would allow those in vehicles to carry concealed guns without a permit. Part of the reasoning is the vehicle is an extension of one’s home, where it is legal to have weapons without a permit,
“If you have a gun in a car without a permit, tell me how that is not a public safety issue?” Taylor asked. “It is a bad law. When you leave your home, you are not in your domicile any more.”
Georgia law allows gun owners to carry a weapon in their vehicles without a permit. At times that difference in the law presents an issue for gun owners going back and forth between Georgia and Alabama, Taylor said.
“A lot of times, someone from Georgia will cross the state line and they don’t realize they are in violation of the law,” Taylor said. “If they do not have a Georgia concealed carry permit, they can not carry it into Alabama.”
Alabama sheriffs, including Taylor, insist this is not gun-owner rights issue, but, rather, a public safety issue.
“Don’t make any mistake about what we are trying to do,” Taylor said. “I don’t know a single sheriff in Alabama who is against the Second Amendment. But when you start carrying a gun outside your house, there has to be forethought about public safety. And the Alabama legislature is taking away the tools we have to deal with the issue.”
And the most important tool is giving sheriffs the ability to use common sense and judgment, Franklin said.
“One of the things that is important to note, is having the pistol permit at the local sheriff’s discretion is a way to know things a computer is not going to tell you, to know things a statewide pistol permit application is not going to tell you,” Franklin said. “… We know things going on in our county.”