Can Alabama Republicans agree on Constitutional Carry language?

AP Photo/Wilson Ring

Going solely by the number of Republicans in the state legislature, it shouldn’t have been a struggle at all to get permitless carry passed in Alabama. But the GOP has struggled to coalesce around the specific language offered by Rep. Shane Stringer, and the Senate changed his bill before approving it and sending it back to the House for a final concurrence vote this week.

Instead of accepting the changes, on Wednesday the Alabama House roundly rejected the Senate’s amendment, which means the Constitutional Carry bill is now headed to a conference committee.

The Senate added language saying private property owners could ban weapons on their property through signage, and created a fund starting at $5 million to replace revenue lost from the loss of permits.

The Senate also added language requiring motorists pulled over by law enforcement to tell officers if they are carrying a firearm, and forbids motorists from touching firearms when law enforcement approaches them. The “reasonable suspicion” provision would allow officers to check the individual and firearm during the stop.

It’s the “reasonable suspicion” language that’s the primary issue, with Stringer, a former law enforcement officer who was fired from his position as a captain in the Mobile County Sheriffs Department over his sponsorship of a permitless carry bill in 2021, telling AL.com that he was “kind of concerned about the reasonable belief because that is not a legal term that is used in law enforcement.”

Ehhh. Is there any real difference between “reasonable belief” and “reasonable suspicion”, which is, in fact, a legal standard of proof? Not that I can tell. The real problem isn’t with the phrase, but how that reasonable suspicion could be interpreted, as House co-sponsor Andrew Sorrell explained.

The Senate also added a provision allowing a police officer to temporarily take custody of a gun during an investigation based on reasonable suspicion that a person “is engaged or is about to be engaged in criminal conduct, or the officer otherwise reasonably believes it is necessary for the protection of the officer, individual, or any other individual.”

While holding the gun, police could search criminal history and weapons databases to determine if the person is prohibited from having a gun. Police could retain the gun if they determined it was used in a crime or if the serial numbers are removed.

Police would return the gun at the scene if they determined that the person was not an immediate threat or had not committed a violation that resulted in an arrest.

Sorrell said he’s opposed to allowing police to temporarily take guns and check them.

“Let’s say that you get pulled over for speeding,” Sorrell said. “The way they have the bill now, the police officer can take possession of your weapon and run serial numbers on it. That is a clear constitutional violation. I’ve got some major Fourth and Fifth Amendment concerns with that.”

Sorrell said the provision of temporarily taking weapons could lead to profiling and increase the potential for dangerous encounters where people are asked to hand their guns to law enforcement.

Simply possessing a gun shouldn’t amount to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, so I understand where Sorrell is coming from. The state sheriffs association and many police chiefs, on the other hand, have maintained that if permitless carry takes effect officers won’t know if the person they pulled over is lawfully or unlawfully carrying, and the Senate amendment is clearly a nod to those concerns.

I don’t know what a compromise would look like here, honestly, and it’s entirely possible that the conference committee can’t come to any agreement. They also don’t have a ton of time to pull something together, with the end to the legislative session scheduled for later this month. I’m sure there’ll be some back room dealing and arm-twisting, but I hope that lawmakers are also hearing from Alabama gun owners encouraging them to find the common ground necessary to put a good Constitutional Carry bill on Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk, because I know that the opponents of Constitutional Carry will be doing everything they can to make sure the current divide keeps the bill from becoming law.