The Alabama Legislature’s rich tradition of pandering to the worst impulses of its constituents has created a noble tradition of civil disobedience.
The 21st century version of civil disobedience is playing out in reaction to some of the worst laws passed in the 2013 session, including the gun law.
Version 1.0 of civil disobedience in Alabama was easy to spot, because its practitioners were intentionally conspicuous. Rosa Parks did not hide under a seat at the front of a bus to protest a despicable law.
Version 2.0 is more pragmatic and less blatant. People whose loyalty is to the people but whose paychecks come from the Legislature are engaging in low-key civil disobedience by refusing to follow bad laws. Rather than creating a visible battle with legislators, they are simply interpreting destructive laws in ways that protect the people.
The significant downside to the civil disobedience of 2013 is it permits legislators to pander without negative consequences. The more intelligent legislators are getting exactly what they want: the ability to pander for votes by passing impractical legislation, without the risk of political blowback when the law causes harm. The worst provisions of the laws they passed will never take effect, because the officials charged with implementing them will ignore them.
The examples of this quiet disobedience are numerous, but I will focus on two provisions of the gun law.
Example 1: The gun law passed this year would allow people, including students, to carry guns on college campuses. College officials are choosing to ignore the provision.
Example 2: The gun law prevents sheriffs from using age — or most other factors — as a reason to deny concealed-carry permits. Many sheriffs say they will continue to deny permits for most applicants under the age of 21.
Anyone who has ever been to a fraternity party or seen the self-destructive mood of students during final exams understands why it’s a really bad idea for the state to condone carrying weapons on a college campus. College administrators, who thankfully are more concerned with keeping students safe than with following the letter of a law designed solely to avoid primary challenges, have been forced into creative interpretations. Most are claiming the law allows them to keep guns off campus by posting signs prohibiting them.
The general rule in Alabama is that a person can carry a handgun anywhere. Several exceptions, most contained in the 2013 law, limit this general rule.
The only provision in the Alabama law that arguably applies to college campuses prohibits people from carrying a firearm in a building or facility that meets two characteristics. First, the facility must employ guards to prevent unauthorized persons from entering. Second, the facility must have other security features, such as key cards or physical barriers.
A typical college campus — such as Calhoun Community College, Athens State University or the University of Alabama — does not meet both of these requirements.
The law authorizes the owner of a property to post a notice “alerting those entering that firearms are prohibited,” but the notice is effective solely for those facilities that meet the exceptions to the general rule that people can carry guns anywhere. Merely posting the notice has no legal effect unless the facility already is on the list.
Interestingly, the state law expressly authorizes people with concealed-carry permits to carry guns at high school athletic events. This is remarkable as a testament to the irresponsibility of the legislators who voted for it, but because federal law trumps state law, the Gun-Free School Zone Act should control.
Wary that municipalities or the state Board of Education might seek to impose their own rules limiting the places people can carry guns, the Legislature made clear it has the sole authority to regulate firearms. Indeed, the law gives residents affected by any local rules purporting to limit the carrying of guns the ability to require action by the state Attorney General.
The civil disobedience of college administrators refusing to follow the law thus comes with risk. Unlike politicians pandering for votes, they have no incentive other than the protection of their students and faculty.
One of the most dramatic changes in the gun law passed in the 2013 session is that it eliminates sheriffs’ discretion in issuing concealed-carry permits.
Under the new law, a sheriff can only deny a concealed-carry permit if the applicant fails to meet one of 11 factors, most dealing with court adjudications of mental incompetence. The only provision that provides the sheriff with any discretion is the 11th, which allows him to deny the permit if the applicant “caused justifiable concern for public safety.”
Even this factor, however, provides little discretion. The applicant does not need to show he is entitled to carry a concealed gun; rather, the sheriff must prove — by “clear and convincing evidence” — that he is not. It is not enough for the sheriff to know the 18-year-old applicant hangs out with gang members or drinks like a fish, he must prove it by a standard higher than that necessary to obtain a civil verdict in a court of law. The fact that the applicant’s wife has bruises every Monday morning is not enough, unless the sheriff can prove the applicant abuses his spouse and that this rises to a “concern for public safety.”
The sheriff cannot even warn a vulnerable public, as the Legislature made it a crime for him to release identifying information about those who receive concealed-carry permits.
Faced with a reckless law that endangers not only residents but deputies, many sheriffs have said they will continue to consider age and other factors not delineated in the law. Rather than kowtow to Montgomery politicians who are willing to risk lives in the effort to get votes, sheriffs are taking a stand.
When public officials are so disturbed by a law that they are willing to risk their jobs and expose themselves to sanctions rather than abide by it, legislators should suspect they passed a very bad law.