Concealed carry permits provided Alabama sheriffs’ funding before they didn’t

“Pistol permits allow you to know more about the people that own pistols,” said Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Linden. (AP File Photo/Dave Martin)
“Pistol permits allow you to know more about the people that own pistols,” said Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Linden. (AP File Photo/Dave Martin)

When the Alabama Legislature debated a measure to abolish concealed carry permits in 2022, sheriffs around the state said doing so would take away a valuable enforcement tool and deny them income.

Six months after the law took effect, several sheriffs say a grant program that was included isn't enough to make up losses from the permits.

Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham, who said his department is selling just a fraction of the permits as in 2022, is relying more on County Commission funding or cutting back spending and paring back what he used to do, like community service programs.

"I used to take 100 kids camping every year, and I rent the camp, and that is all free," Cunningham said. "Now we are down to 60 kids. I just had to cut down on some things that I used to do."

The Legislature passed a bill in the recently concluded regular session that will try to make up the losses.

A grant program established a $5 million fund that renews every fiscal year from money that is appropriated by the Legislature or from any grants, gifts or donations from other sources. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs can use that money to provide grants to the sheriff's department throughout the state.

According to the Alabama Department of Revenue, sheriff's departments throughout the state have received slightly more than $1.5 million in grants in the past two quarters of the year to make up for the losses of from the sale of concealed carry permits.

The numbers vary by county. Some counties, including Cleburne, Jefferson, Limestone and Sumter counties, did not report any losses from pistol permit fees during the first quarter and were not offered a grant.

Colbert and Crenshaw counties were the only two counties that did not receive grants in the second quarter.

Mobile County received the largest grant, almost $170,000. Madison County received almost $122,000. Shelby County got slightly more than $110,000 in replacement revenues.

The only county to break even for the first half of the year was Crenshaw County.

"The amounts in the spreadsheet cover the full amount of the reported revenue loss for each county, when there were losses reported, for the first two quarters," said Mike Presley, unit chief for communication and external affairs for the state economic department.

Permit sales

Sheriffs who were interviewed said the reimbursements are not dollar for dollar and their losses will exceed grant dollars they receive.

Cunningham said before the Legislature abolished the concealed carry permit requirement, his department sold about 20,000 permits annually — sometimes as many as 29,000 — bringing in about $760,000 in revenue.

The department uses the money for continuing education expenses and equipment, to purchase body cameras or communications devices for vehicles, stun guns and bullet resistant vests and community service programs.

Through the end of May, the department had sold about 1,200 concealed carry permits, putting the department on track to sell about 2,500 for the year — about 12% of what is sold in previous years. Cunningham said the department may bring in $200,000 at that pace, or $550,000 under previous totals.

The grants offered to the sheriff's offices cannot exceed the revenues they received from pistol permit fees in fiscal year 2022, and the money can only be used for the same purpose as the money the department received from issuing pistol permits.

To receive money from the grant, sheriff's departments must report their losses from permit sales for that same quarter in the prior fiscal year. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs uses a formula to calculate how much the sheriff should receive from the $5 million total, then transfers it to the County Commission to give to the sheriff's department.

Sheriffs showed up in force during the waning days of this year's legislative session to push lawmakers to pass House Bill 320, sponsored by Rep. Russell Bedsole, R-Alabaster. The bill extends the life of the fund by five fiscal years; requires $5 million to be put into the fund each year and gives sheriffs sole control of the spending. Gov. Kay Ivey signed the measure.

Rep. Shane Stringer, R-Citronelle, who sponsored House Bill 272, the bill that ended the concealed carry permit requirement last year, said in a recent interview that since Alabama is an open carry state, removing the pistol permit requirement was the next natural step.

Stringer said "going and paying for a $20 piece of plastic was not going to stop anybody from doing harm."

The bill was the latest attempt at scaling back regulations related to firearms possession, but that effort has gone back decades.

"There had been efforts to change the pistol permit in Alabama for the last 20 years," said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. "Every year that a bill was passed, it whittled away and whittled away at the effectiveness of the pistol permit process, just to be honest. To look at that one bill in isolation isn't really giving us a true picture."

When revenue came up, Brasfield said, supporters either had to acknowledge revenue would be lost and there needed to be a conversation about funding law enforcement, or they had to say Alabama gun owners would continue to buy pistol permits despite it no longer being mandatory.

"Those advancing the legislation were dogmatic in their position that people would continue to buy pistol permits," Brasfield said. "And the sheriffs were just as dogmatic that people would not."

Lost revenue

Thus far, it has been the sheriffs who have been proven correct.

"The legislators were willing to do the easy part," Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade said. "But they were unwilling to tackle the part that might not have been so popular, and that is replacing those funds."

Wade used about 62% of his revenues from concealed carry permits to pay for new vehicles or maintain existing ones. The remaining amount paid for training and equipment, like pistols, protective vests and cameras.

Before HB 272, Wade's office generated about $450,000 in revenue from the permit fees. That was barely enough to cover the cost of maintaining his fleet.

"I need $500,000 a year to stay status quo," Wade said. "That is 10 cars. They get miles put on them. They are driven hard. They last 10 years at the current rate of $500,000 per year."

With permit fees optional, the department expects to generate about $130,000, or roughly a third of what they got before.

Wade is also having to rely more on the County Commission to pay for operations. The department needs 10 radios that will cost $40,000 because they have reached the end of their useful life.

Brasfield said the same dynamic is playing out all over the state.

"If the Legislature knew then what we clearly have facts to show now, then there would have been much more discussion at that time about replacing the revenues," Brasfield said. "Those advancing the bill wouldn't, and honestly from the strategy standpoint, couldn't admit that people were going to stop buying pistol permits."

Stringer said the departments should not be funded by "law-abiding citizens" and said that they had been told "for the last eight or nine years, that it was going to pass eventually and that they needed to get their affairs in order."

"It is the purpose of the government, county government at that, to fund these agencies," he said.

Concealed carry permits are still required at sporting events and at elementary, secondary or postsecondary schools. People might also purchase a permit if they are traveling to another state that requires one.

Stringer gathered several co-sponsors for his legislation, including House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville.

Legislators who supported the bill justified their support largely on Second Amendment grounds.

"The right to bear arms is a Second Amendment right, and this bill allows us to do that without any infringement on that right," said Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, one of the co-sponsors. "I don't think it is fair for a citizen to have to pay for a right like the First Amendment right to free speech."

Pushback

Support for the bill was hardly unanimous, with several Republican lawmakers in both chambers joining the many Democrats who opposed the bill.

"Pistol permits allow you to know more about the people that own pistols," said Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Linden. "Whenever a person doesn't own a permit, then it opens an area for people that aren't really savory in my opinion. They may have some mental issues. They may have suicidal tendencies and things of this nature."

Bedsole also opposed the bill.

"It gave me the ability to detain and further investigate," he said. "Quite honestly, we were probably preventing a crime from occurring before it ever happened because they were in the process, or driving to their location, to commit a crime. But because they had a pistol in their possession without a permit, that allowed us, with some discretion, to make that arrest."

Numerous sheriffs traveled from throughout the state to share their concerns with public safety.

"I went to every hearing, and I fought against it when they first introduced it," Cunningham said. "Look at what we are dealing with today. We are turning our streets into the Wild West."

Cunningham said the number of noise complaints has increased, with guns going off. Business owners in the downtown area, he said, have voiced concerns about the number of times they've heard gunfire.

"It used to be every Fourth of July or New Year's, we hear complaints about rapid gunfire, everybody shooting," he said, mimicking the popping noise made by a firearm. "Now, we are hearing those same complaints on a daily basis because it is not against the law and people are saying, 'If somebody is going to be shooting — then I am going to shoot.'"

A deterrent

Sheriffs also said the concealed carry permit requirement served as a filter and a deterrent that kept firearms away from people with a criminal history. To obtain the permit, people need to complete an application to provide details about themselves and their personal criminal histories. They were then subject to a background check to determine if they qualified for a permit.

That permit acted as a safeguard for law enforcement officers whenever they stopped someone who they believed acted suspiciously.

"With this law, there isn't even a requirement to have any identification on your person," Cunningham said. "I don't know what your name is. I have to assume that you are telling me the truth. You may be a felon, but you may be telling me your brother's name because you know all his information."

While supporting HB 320, sheriffs still question what will happen when they reach the five-year limit on funds. The costs will remain, even if grants and pistol permit revenues are gone.

Some legislators have sponsored local legislation to make up for the lost money. Wade referred to increases in registration fees that the legislature approved for some counties, shifting the burden of funding law enforcement from those who own a firearm to those who must drive a vehicle for transportation.

State representatives and senators from his county, however, would not go along with that plan.

"Somebody somewhere in the Legislature is going to have to have enough guts to say, 'Law enforcement, sheriffs in particular, we defunded them and we have got to find a way to give them more funding to make up for what we took from them,'" Wade said.

Read more at AlabamaReflector.com.

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