Alabama Senate Passes Pro-Gun Omnibus Firearms Bill

Alabama's capitol building courtesy politicsalabama.org

By Benjamin Jarrell

There has been a lot made in the news and other media about gun control measures being passed at the state level. Less has been made of the pushback against the disarmament wave in some other states, like Alabama, to strengthen and shore up gun rights. Yesterday the Alabama Senate passed SB 286, an Omnibus Firearms bill that strengthens gun rights in the Yellowhammer State. However, it will still need to make it through House before ending up on the Governors desk . . .

You can find the text of the bill here.

What Does the Omnibus Firearms Bill Do?

Alabama already recognizes very strong gun rights, but they are scattered throughout the Constitution, various statutes, case law, Attorney General opinions, and so forth. This omnibus bill consolidates certain statutory provisions and expands on them. The bill states its purpose as follows:

“The purpose of this section is to establish within the Legislature complete control over regulation and policy pertaining to firearms, ammunition, and firearm accessories in order to ensure that such regulation and policy is applied uniformly throughout this state to each person subject to the state’s jurisdiction and to ensure protection of the right to keep and bear arms recognized by the Constitutions of the State of Alabama and the United States. This section is to be liberally construed to accomplish its purpose.”

That should help clear up any ambiguities. Let’s take a look.

Carrying, concealed or otherwise

Under current Alabama law, possession of a pistol inside a vehicle is considered “concealment” and requires a pistol permit. This bill would eliminate the presumption that a pistol is concealed merely because it is inside a vehicle. The NRA is calling this a “car carry permit” that is free of charge and good for life. However, I think that may be exaggerating the scope of this new language.

The bill is amended to add two items: first, carrying a holstered firearm does not constitute disorderly conduct, and second, there is no presumption that the pistol is concealed merely because it is inside of a vehicle. I read that to mean that the state bears the burden of proof in proving that the pistol was concealed and that if the state wanted to prosecute someone, they would merely have to prove that the individual was in fact concealing the firearm (for instance, inside of a jacket) without having a pistol license. If this becomes law, it remains to be seen how this will be enforced.

The first item seems to make explicit in statute what was previously buried in the Alabama Constitution and case-law: that openly carrying a firearm is not in and of itself unlawful. This is bolstered by language in the concealed-carry section, stating that the statutes should not be construed to limit a person’s right to openly carry.

Issuance of Pistol Permits

Under current Alabama law, the Sherriff’s office has discretion in awarding concealed carry permits. This new language would amend “may issue,” which gives the Sherriff an option, to “shall issue,” which will not, and it will require the Sherriff to either issue or deny the pistol permit within thirty days. A denial must be made in writing and based on documented, specific actions, some of which must have occurred within the past two years, that the individual is likely to endanger themselves or others.

The rationale for revoking a license mirrors the criteria for issuance of a license. If an individual is denied, they have the right to appeal the denial to an appeals panel made up of the probate judge, the district attorney, and the president of the local bar association. Another interesting provision is that the individual applying for the permit gets to determine whether their license expires in 1 or 5 years, or possibly some increment in-between. Importantly, the statute now affirmatively states that a licensed individual can carry concealed throughout the state, unless prohibited by law. This clears up some confusion about when and where it is appropriate to carry.

For concealed-carry proponents, this is a big win. It remains to be seen how the Sherriff’s offices will respond. At least in Madison County, I know the backlog of applications can often exceed 30 days. Perhaps spacing out renewals will ease up their backlog. Removing the Sherriff’s discretion might also speed up the process, since they are required to issue the permit, unless they have a reason, based on documented evidence. I applaud including the local bar president in the appeals panel as a means of advocating for the individual and protecting civil rights. However, the American Bar Association recently tainted their reputation respecting 2nd Amendment civil rights and I hope that local bars will do better.

A few other items relating to pistol permits: the bill sets up a mechanism for issuance of a permit to non-citizens in some circumstances, although illegal immigrants are specifically excluded. A NICS check is now required for the issuance of a permit, although my understanding was that the Sherriff’s office already conducted a NICS check. The Attorney General is authorized to reciprocate pistol permits (as they already do).

Relating to Businesses and Employers

 The bill addresses a conflict that has arisen between business owners who want to prohibit the presence of weapons on their property, and the rights of gun owners who want to be able to leave their weapons in their cars during the workday. This conflict pitted property rights of business owners against the rights of workers to legally carry a firearm for self-defense, hunting, or some other legal purpose. They argued that if they were not allowed to safely store their firearms, they could not effectively carry for self-defense at all.

This bill resolves this conflict strongly in favor of employees. Business owners/employers may not now prohibit employees from transporting or storing firearms in their private motor vehicles, so long as the firearm is out of sight, in the trunk, or in a secure container. An employer may not inquire whether an employee is transporting or storing a firearm, may not terminate an employee for keeping a firearm in their car, and it provides for some serious remedies for employees who are wrongfully terminated for doing so. That statute provides for full recovery by wrongfully terminated employees, including reinstatement of their position, full fringe benefits and seniority rights, compensation for lost wages, benefits, or other remuneration, and any legal costs incurred.

The bill allows Alabama businesses to prohibit employees from carrying weapons while on the job. They may also prohibit people licensed to carry concealed from coming on the premises, so long as a notice that concealed weapons are disallowed is posted prominently at every entrance. If someone disregards the notice, the business owner can request that they leave, and if they refuse, then they can be arrested for trespassing.

Business owners who prohibit individuals from safely carrying or storing a firearm in their vehicle can become civilly liable for an injunction, and damages arising from damage, injury, or death that occurs because of the prohibition. I interpret this to mean that if you are prohibited from carrying on the premises and are unable to defend yourself, the business becomes liable.

The Alabama business community fought these provisions, and although they largely lost, they scored a major concession that seems designed to make tort lawyers cry: almost absolute civil immunity for criminal acts that occur on their premises. The bill states that business owners have no obligation to guard against criminal acts of a third party unless they know that a criminal act is occurring or is about to occur, and that is poses an imminent probability of harm to someone. So if someone shoots you at a restaurant (or a movie theater) you wouldn’t be able to seek recourse from the business or owner. Although this is clearly a concession to the business community, I can’t help but wonder if it will encourage concealed carry if this becomes widely known.

Carrying on State Premises

As a lawyer who goes in and out of the Courthouse and other state and city buildings with some frequency, this next provision makes me happy. The bill  requires that if the state, or any political subdivision thereof prohibits the carrying of a weapon onto their premises, they must provide a means for an individual to check their weapon with a designated person at a designated entrance to the facility, who must store it in a locked location. Failure of the state to do so opens them up to a civil injunction, and they will become liable for the costs and attorney’s fees incurred in bringing an action. However, this would obviously not apply to Federal premises.

Demonstrations

The bill repeals the statute that prohibits people from carrying a weapon within 1,000 feet of a public demonstration is repealed outright. This always struck me as a stupid provision, and I think Alabama lawmakers probably recognized that any law that criminalizes the lawful exercise of a fundamental constitutional right is unconstitutional. It was only a matter of time before this went away.

Final Thoughts

This bill is great news for proponents of broad gun rights in the Yellowhammer State. However, it still has to be taken up in the House, and signed by the Governor. If you want to see these provisions become law, please contact your local representatives and the Governors office and let them know you support SB 286, the Omnibus Firearms Bill.

Find your State legislators and their contact information here. Although you should probably wait until the bill makes it out of the House, Governor Bentley’s contact information can be found here.