It would seem there is a pistol strapped to America’s Bible Belt, which would be perfectly legal in Alabama without a permit. It’s a region that has had a long, violent, love affair with guns; roughly 57.2 percent of households in Alabama own guns, according to a report by the Violence Policy Center. But the recent death of a high-profile bill in the state legislature is proof that, even in a Republican stronghold such as Alabama, gun restrictions (or, depending on who is asked, the lack thereof) remain part of a politically loaded debate — an ongoing battle waged across the aisle with the right side trying to “uphold the Constitution” and the left trying to increase regulations on gun ownership.
On Friday, Eddie Fulmer was armed while he helped his wife unload groceries from her car after a trip to the store. Fulmer is the president of BamaCarry, an Alabama gun rights organization. He scoffed at the idea that constantly carrying a gun could be perceived as a form of paranoia.
“If I knew when I might need it, I’d only carry then,” Fulmer said. “But, obviously, I don’t know when that time may come… I hope it never does.”
In the 30 years he’s carried a gun, Fulmer says, he has never had to draw his weapon on anyone.
Like many of his fellow “constitutional carry” advocates, Fulmer was in favor of the legislative effort — HB 414/SB 24 (sponsored by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa) — that would have, among other things, eliminated the requirement for Alabamians to purchase a concealed carry permit. “We don’t think that any law-abiding citizen should have to buy a piece of paper to exercise a right,” Fulmer said. “Criminals are going to be criminals. They’re going to have guns and carry them without a permit.”
Fulmer said that, despite Alabama being perceived as a state in which most everybody has a gun, he believes the laws are still too restrictive and hinder his constitutional right to bear arms. He characterizes laws that allow him to carry a gun “damn near anywhere” as being “not that good.” He has made it a goal “to restore those rights back to the original founding fathers’ intent by any civil means necessary.”
One such effort occurred on November 4, 2014 in Pelham, when one of BamaCarry’s founding members, Robert Kennedy Jr., attempted to walk into a polling place while wearing a gun. Kennedy, who had carried a gun to the polls in the July primary election that year, wore it back in November to make a point.
Between the primary and the general election that year, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department had issued an order prohibiting firearms from polling places. Kennedy was protesting on behalf of BamaCarry.
Speaking over the phone over two years later, Kennedy recounted how the event unfolded.
“I had actually emailed the sheriff the day before and let them know what was going to happen,” he said. Anticipating a confrontation, he rode to the polling place with a reporter. The deputy gave him the chance to put the gun in the car. Kennedy said he didn’t want to put a loaded gun in the journalist’s car because that would have “broken at least one law,” as he recalled it.
Fulmer said that Kennedy approached the door at the polling station with a .357 magnum revolver on his hip when a law enforcement officer told him he could not come in and that if he took another step he would be arrested. That’s exactly what happened. Kennedy was charged with the misdemeanors of voting obstruction and possession of a firearm in certain places.
Kennedy said that he and the arresting officer shared a laugh as he was being handcuffed — but he did get convicted in Shelby County District Court.
Still, Fulmer — who also had worn a gun to his polling place in Tuscaloosa without getting arrested the same day — said Kennedy was not participating in a stunt or an attempt at voter intimidation.
“It was not a stunt. We had people all over the state who carried inside of polling places,” Fulmer said. “A polling place is not a restricted place or somewhere you have to disarm in order to go to. The law enforcement knew that was going to happen. They wouldn’t back down, so we said, ‘You know what, this will happen and we’ll figure out how it goes… Basically, this was to get this in court so we could prove we were correct. There were no laws he was violating.”
As for the idea that Kennedy was trying to intimidate voters, Fulmer was dismissive. “He never talked to anybody,” he said.
Kennedy is still trying to appeal his conviction, though he said it has been a long, slow process. A few months after his arrest, Kennedy was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease which has made his life more difficult. “That was the only moment I ever regretted what I did, after I got that diagnosis,” Kennedy said. “But now, no. I don’t regret anything.”
A Brief History of Guns
At 310,296 words and counting, the Alabama Constitution is the longest document of its kind in the world. Gun advocates frequently ask — as if referencing a Bible verse — “Have you read our state constitution?” before listing off seemingly obscure statutes like 13A-11-63, which until 2010 prohibited short-barrel rifles and shotguns, or 13A-11-59, which forbids carrying guns at a protest.
Even for those who have taken the time to familiarize themselves with the laws of the land — like Kennedy, who spent several days reading the Alabama Constitution before his planned demonstration — the sheer breadth of the document can make it a daunting process.
Fulmer said that BamaCarry had hoped to use the court system to prove people had the right to carry a firearm into a polling station. But the legal victory he anticipated has not come.
In order to understand the recent push for permitless concealed carry in Alabama, one must go back to 1839 when the Alabama legislature banned concealed carry outright — “To suppress the evil practice of carrying weapons secretly” — explained George Owens, the president of the Alabama Gun Rights Network, a gun lobby group that led the charge for the recent legislative effort to make pistol permits optional.
“One of the very first cases to make it to a state supreme court on the right of a citizen to keep and bear arms was a case in Alabama: State vs Reid,” Owens said, speaking slowly, with a thick Southern drawl. He’s a burly man with piercing blue eyes who has played a role behind the scenes, helping to shape Alabama’s gun laws since 2012.
John W. Templeton Reid was the sheriff of Montgomery County Alabama and was charged under the concealed carry statute after it became known he was carrying a small pistol in his pocket. “The back channel story on that was a woman who lived in the county and who had voiced opposition to [Reid] eventually threatened his life,” Owens said. “His friend, who was a doctor, gave him a pocket pistol in order to defend himself. When it came to the attention of the local magistrate that the sheriff was carrying a concealed pistol, he was charged. He was tried, convicted, and fined $5. He appealed it and the case ended up in the Alabama Supreme Court.”
The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the conviction and Reid cemented himself as a martyr of sorts for gun advocates in the state and elsewhere.
It was not until 1936 that the Alabama legislature would change the law to allow concealed carry in the state, though Owens said it was for “some wrong reasons.” Essentially, the law requiring a permit came into existence because it let the government give permits to whites while at the same time denying permits to blacks who had been arming themselves against violence from the Ku Klux Klan and other “unsavory individuals,” Owens said.
At the time, Alabama was a “may issue” state, and sheriff’s departments routinely denied black men and women concealed permits.
By making permits a requirement, according to Owens, the state legislature was trying to regulate African-American gun ownership. He pointed to the formation (nearly 28 years later) of the Deacons of Defense, an armed self-defense group founded by African-Americans — many of whom were World War II veterans — in order to fight back against armed vigilantes and white supremacists, as playing “a very positive role in pushing the boundaries of open carry laws” because they “would openly arm themselves and escort people to voter registration places and to and from polling places.”
In 2013 the NRA supported a piece of legislation that changed Alabama from a “may issue” state to a “shall issue” state, meaning the issuing authority must issue a permit if one passes the basic requirements. That change also allowed non-permit holders (who can legally own a gun) to transport a handgun in their vehicle, provided it was unloaded and stowed away. Despite these apparent victories for gun advocates, Owens said there is still work to be done, and this past legislative session has left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Tone deaf on Goat Hill”
“I’m no fan of the North American Man/Boy Love Association [NAMBLA is a pedophile advocacy group aimed at abolishing age-of-consent laws] but they get to hold their meeting and they can say whatever they want to say,” Owens said, attempting to draw parallels between first and second amendment protections. “What I will tell you is, whether it’s free speech or carrying a gun, your discomfort is not my problem. Popular speech doesn’t need the protection of the first amendment. Speech that everyone agrees with isn’t free speech. You don’t get into the protections of the first amendment until you start getting into areas that make your blood boil.”
The NRA-authored legislation, HB 414/SB 24, commonly referred to as simply, “the gun bill,” quickly made its way through the Alabama Senate with the vote following party lines 25-8, with all eight Democrats voting against the bill on April 18 before its eventual demise in a House committee.
Shanna Chamblee, a gun lobbyist with the Alabama Gun Rights Network, said that after the gun bill breezed through the senate, she had focused her efforts of whipping up votes in the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee of the Alabama House of Representatives. “We knew all along that we were good in the Senate. So our main focus had been the House,” she said over the phone from Montgomery.
History has shown that similar bills often land in that subcommittee, and Chamblee had worked to secure a vote with the chair, Rep. Allen Treadaway, who also serves as captain of the Birmingham Police Department East Precinct. That’s where the gun bill died.
Chamblee said Treadaway had waffled back and forth between offering his support of the bill and trying to placate law enforcement officials who did not support the legislation.
In an internal email published by AL.com, Bobby Timmons, who has served as the executive director of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association since 1975, urged members to vote against any legislation that would reduce pistol permit funds. “NOW IS THE TIME TO TALK TO YOUR LEGISLATOR. DO NOT PUT IT OFF IF YOU VALUE YOUR PERMIT FUND,” Timmons wrote.
The email reflected the outright opposition from the group in regards to the gun bill. A number of other statewide organizations opposed the bill as well, such as the Alabama County Commission Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Jefferson County Sheriff Mike Hale was a notable exception. He testified in front of the Alabama Senate in favor of the gun bill. “Adequate funding is the responsibility of the county commission,” he said. “It is not up to pistol license owners to pay for training.”
Owens has taken issue with what he contends is a conflict of interest for Treadaway which led to the failure of the bill. That alleged conflict is centered on another bill, HB 34, which would take money from pistol permits to pay for a board to oversee repairs of cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair in Jefferson County.
The Jefferson County delegation, including Treadaway, supports the cemetery bill which would collect $50,000 from pistol permit fees to fund the board for the first year. The board in turn would then distribute money to various cemeteries.
Treadaway voted for the cemetery bill while also assuring gun lobby groups he would support the gun bill, Owens said.
“The House committee approved the cemetery bill using pistol permit money. Mr. Treadway is now faced with a bill that takes pistol permit funds and puts them towards cemetery maintenance and another bill that would result in a shortfall of pistol permit funds to be divvied up,” Owens said.
Owens also suggested Treadaway’s actions on the gun bill might have been influenced by his superiors on the Birmingham Police Department. During the a public hearing for the gun bill on April 25, Treadaway’s superior officer, Deputy Chief Allen Hatcher, spoke in opposition of the bill.
“The person who does Treadaway’s performance evaluations, controls his assignments, has [a] big say about his pay raise — all of a sudden that person is the last one testifying in front of committee. He said during the hearing that his chief [A.C. Roper] was going to be there but couldn’t make it,” Owens said, indicating he believes this to be a conflict of interest. “Now Treadaway has clear indications from his commander and his chief that they don’t favor the gun bill. They’re all in favor of the cemetery commission… Once someone is elected, all of a sudden they become tone deaf on Goat Hill.”
Treadaway, who has received multiple endorsements from the National Rifle Association over the years, sees it differently. He said that the House has not had enough time to do its due diligence on the bill before the session comes to a close. Not only that, but the bill would remove a “tool” that law enforcement uses to take guns away from criminals, he said.
He referred to an incident that occurred in the early morning of April 20, when Birmingham police stopped two men who were driving without a headlight. Police were able to search the car after it became evident the men had pistols without a permit. “They ended up having drugs, two AR-15s, two handguns, ammo, and what the ATF said were two pipe bombs that could do serious damage,” Treadaway said. “When law enforcement came out in such force against the bill, it tells me I want all the stakeholders at the table. We’re so late into this session when the public hearing was held that the process hasn’t been able to run its proper course. Where I will be at the end of that process, I don’t know.”
Treadaway, who voted in favor of the cemetery bill, said he anticipates working with lobbyists and organizations to get certain aspects of the bill changed before the next legislative session.
Meanwhile, Owens said he is planning on filing an ethics complaint against Treadaway.
America’s Existential Gun Question
The death of the Alabama gun bill in a Republican dominated legislature points to the deep divide in public opinion on the government’s role in regulating firearm ownership.
Four days after Brandon Dean was elected mayor of Brighton, a man who helped him on his campaign was shot and killed during a “Love Thy Neighbor” event at a local park. Dean had driven the victim to vote days earlier. Deadly shootings happen every day in American cities — so much so, Dean said, the victims are often lost in the overflowing sea of statistics.
“These are people who I knew. These are real people. They’re not statistics,” Dean said. “There is a problem. When I look at the people who are actors in these tragedies, I don’t see hardened killers, but I do see people who find themselves on the wrong side of an opportunity to have access to a weapon when they are not mentally fit or mature enough to handle it. And I think it results in a lack of respect of life and high instances of murder.”
At 23, Dean is one of the youngest mayors in Alabama history. He has seen two young men he considered friends killed by guns just since his mayoral tenure began in 2016. “When we’re looking at it from the perspective of conservative groups who believe access to guns should be less restrictive, I don’t think that takes into consideration the real-time impact that has on communities where these incidents are happening, where children are more readily able to get their hands on a gun than on a fresh apple in a grocery store,” Dean said. “The same gun laws that make it easier for people in rural America to feel protected, it also makes it easier for systemic issues of violence that are out of control to continue in urban communities.”
Having never owned a gun, Dean still does not think it is his job to limit people’s constitutional rights. “As someone birthed in the experience of limited opportunities, I am not in a position nor do I have a desire to limit anyone’s rights or access to something they are entitled to,” he said. “The clash between restricting rights and protecting lives in these domestic instances of mass shooting — I think we in government and in communities need to decide what matters more. And is it worth the continued culture of gun violence happening in urban communities among young people who shouldn’t have guns?”
The clear potential for gun violence is just as evident miles away from Brighton in other parts of the metro area. For instance, Hannah Hammitte was pulling into Planet Fitness in Crestline, a Birmingham suburb, when her car nearly collided with another vehicle. “Maybe I was going a little bit fast,” Hammitte said, chuckling a bit, as she recalled backing up from the near collision. “The whole time I’m going out of my way, [the female driver in the other car] was giving me this death stare. And I just looked at her and gave her a ‘what are you looking at’ kind of look.”
When Hammitte pulled past her, the other driver opened her door and started yelling. Hammitte said when she pulled into the parking spot moments later, the other driver pulled up next to her and pointed a gun in her face. “She said, ‘Do you want to die today, bitch?’
“I was trying to be really calm because I could tell she was very upset, obviously. She said to me, ‘You want to throw your hands up at me? Look what I can throw up at you,’” Hammitte said. The altercation only lasted a few seconds, and ended without violence as the armed driver sped away. Hammitte called the police and filed a report but after the tense encounter, she couldn’t recall the other woman’s license plate number.
Hammitte considers herself lucky. Having grown up in Dothan, she had always been comfortable with guns. But the incident, which occurred in March, has left her shaken and upset. “I wasn’t thinking I was going to get a gun pulled on me going to the gym. It can happen anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you are and that’s just the sad reality of it,” Hammitte said. “It’s still scary knowing she has a gun on her, wherever she is now, because it was not a big deal and she felt the need to point a gun at me.” Despite the incident, Hammitte said she has never considered owning a gun for protection.
Situations like that could be avoided with reasonable gun training requirements — or, at least, that’s what Lakin Spinks believes. A Shelby County native, Spinks has hunted his whole life and is a staunch supporter of the second amendment.
“As far as gun laws in Alabama, there isn’t a lot to look at,” Spinks said. “There is a required license for concealed carry for people 18 and up. They do issue these without any training class or education at all. That is something I don’t agree with. To me, everyone who is carrying one should have some idea about the gun and gun safety in general. I feel like one accident is too many, and it seems like you hear about something on a semi regular basis.”
Spinks takes the same view of assault weapons. “If you want the protection of those weapons you need to be knowledgeable in their capacity and purpose,” Spinks said. “Carrying a gun or owning a gun is a right and has been since our country was founded. I feel like guns are a tool for people to use for protection and recreation. That being said, how do we keep guns in the hands of responsible people who want to use them for the right purpose? It’s unknown at this point.”
“That rabbit’s out of the bag”
“Seven minus two,” Tim Smith shouted over the cacophony of gunshots reverberating through the massive indoor firing range at Hoover Tactical Firearms. Smith had secured a target seven yards down range with various shapes and numbers drawn on it. He had loaned a journalist his Springfield 1911 .45ACP handgun and was now shouting simple math problems at him while he fired at the target; Smith is a SWAT instructor and this drill is part of the training, designed to help police officers get comfortable with thinking quickly while firing a gun accurately.
“You missed it. Pop it again,” Smith shouted. He’s a short, muscular man who speaks quickly and carries himself purposefully. He’s a 10-year veteran on a local police force (he requested that the name of his department be withheld so he could speak candidly; he did not want to speak for his entire department).
“I’ll give you the real reason that no cop ever wants to say,” Smith said, explaining why he wanted to become a police officer. “I wanted to shoot guns and drive fast,” he said, letting out a hearty laugh.
Smith isn’t bothered by Alabama laws that allow people to carry guns, “I wish more people would carry guns, honestly,” he said, repeating a cliche about only good guys with guns can stop a bad guy with a gun. “No law that you can pass will ever be able, at this point, to stop a bad guy from having a gun if he wants one. Look at Detroit, one of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, and it has one of the worst crime rates… There are hundreds of millions of guns in this country. That rabbit is out of the bag.”
For him, the paranoia revolving around the federal government rounding up guns is laughable. He gets a kick out of people who want to exercise their right to openly carry assault weapons. He’s had multiple interactions with people carrying long guns — he refers to them as “offensive weapons” — that typically end with him telling the person with the gun that someone called the cops because they were nervous. “I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of getting me worked up about it,” he said, labeling those situations as a mild nuisance.
He admits that he may be in the minority of police officers when it comes to supporting the gun bill that died in committee — for now. “I am for the bill,” Smith said. “With the permits, it’s not about the money, because most people can afford to pay $20… I think they’ve killed this bill on purpose, which is ridiculous. It doesn’t matter if a person has a permit or not. It only matters what’s in their heart. And, like I said, no one at this point is going to come round up all the guns because, as one of the people who would be tasked with that, I can tell you, your guns are safe.”