MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Many Alabama sheriffs are seeing more young people ages 18 to 20 seeking permits to carry concealed handguns now that a new state gun law makes it tougher to deny them.
Bobby Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, said he's fielded more questions from law enforcement about pistol permits for those in that age group than any other topic since the law took effect Aug. 1.
"Everybody in the world wants to know about this," he said.
Timmons said people that age have always been able to apply for pistol permits in Alabama. But many sheriffs never processed the applications if they thought a person was too immature to carry a concealed weapon.
"Before we said, 'Get the hell out of this office. I'm not giving you a permit,'" Timmons said.
Under the new law, sheriffs can't ignore an application and must process it within 30 days.
If they deny it, they must give the applicant a written explanation using guidelines in the new law. Then the applicant can appeal to district court, and a judge must rule within 30 days whether to grant the permit.
Assuming the applicant passes a mandatory criminal background check, the new law allows a sheriff to reject the application if there is reasonable suspicion the person may use the weapon unlawfully or in a manner that would endanger the applicant or others.
The law sets out 11 reasons the sheriff may consider. Most focus on the person having an involuntary commitment to a hospital or other facility for mental health or drug problems. But one says a sheriff can reject the request when the applicant causes "justifiable concern for public safety."
Butler County Sheriff Kenny Harden said he used to get one or two young people under 21 seeking a pistol permit each year, and he denied most of them. "Ninety percent are not mature enough to be out there with a gun," he said.
But he said he had three come in the first week the law was in effect, including one on the first day.
"He said the law had changed and he wanted a permit," he said.
Harden denied it for public safety reasons. He doesn't know yet if the young man will appeal.
Sheriffs said issuing a permit to someone under 21 has always been a tough call because federal law prohibits a licensed firearm dealer from selling a handgun to someone that age. But younger people can get guns legally as a gift or buy them from individuals.
Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell, a former state director of public safety, said he has only issued three or four permits to people under 21 during his seven years as sheriff. He said he's seen more young people come into his northwest Alabama office since Aug. 1, but he's still checking with their parents, like he has always done.
"I'm getting a lot of parents that don't want their student to have one," he said.
Mitchell said that when he has approved a permit, it was because the parents approved and the applicant had a good reason, such as wanting a gun for safety while commuting to night classes at a college in another county.
"I've got three grandboys and I wouldn't want them to have permits," he said.
Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson said pistol permits for young people are a harder call in his county because of Fort Rucker. If a young soldier comes in, Olson said he usually approves the permit because he figures the Army considers the person mature enough to have a weapon. But if it is someone who grew up locally, Olson usually contacts the applicant's parents to see if they approve.
"If the parent tells me that they don't need a gun, then I tell them to go talk to their mama or daddy and then come back to see me. That usually takes care of it," he said.
Barry Matson, deputy director of Alabama District Attorneys Association, is advising sheriffs that when maturity is an issue, they should not only check with parents, but also local school officials and juvenile probation officers. That way, they can find valid reasons they can put in writing for rejecting an application for "public safety" reasons, he said.
Timmons said the new law allows a person to buy a pistol permit for five years, where one year had been the limit. He predicts that most young people who do get approved for permits will buy them for five years so that they don't have to be reviewed by the sheriff any time soon.
Changing the pistol permit requirements was only one part of the sweeping gun law that took effect last week.
The Alabama Sheriffs Association and Alabama District Attorneys Association presented a seminar on the new law Thursday in Montgomery that attracted more than 500 city, county and university law enforcement officers and county prosecutors. It was three times the attendance they expected, and they attributed the high turnout to questions about the new law.
"This is probably the most significant piece of legislation that has passed in a long time," said Randy Hillman, executive director of the District Attorneys Association.