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Task force discusses concealed carry without permit

MONTGOMERY — Policymakers talked mostly about loosening gun restrictions, not tightening them, at a Tuesday meeting of the Alabama Legislature's Task Force on 21st Century Gun Laws.

"I do believe in the slippery slope, and that includes this panel," said Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, at the task force meeting at the Alabama State House.

Lawmakers earlier this year formed the task force to address a long-running political battle over concealed-carry permits for gun owners. A 2013 law allowed gun owners to openly carry holstered pistols in most public places. Since that bill passed, gun rights advocates have campaigned for an end to the Alabama law requiring pistol owners to buy a permit in order to carry a concealed weapon.

Law enforcement officials have generally opposed efforts to end the permit requirement. The permits cost $25 in most counties, with the money going to sheriff's offices. State law allows sheriffs to deny permits to people with mental health issues or drinking problems, though the 2013 law made it harder for sheriffs to deny permits on those grounds.

The gun law task force was created to review the permitless-carry proposal — and to conduct a more wide-ranging review of the state's gun laws. Much of the talk Tuesday, however, was about the permitless-carry proposal.

"If I were to submit to you that for $1.66 a month, you could make your community safer, is that too high a price to pay?" said Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones, who represented the Sheriffs Association on the 19-member panel. Jones didn't offer any proposals to tighten gun regulations, but did say the current permit law should stay in place.

Officials of the National Rifle Association, which had two seats on the council, said the goal was to find "balance" in the state's firearms laws — and that balance would be achieved if the permitless-carry proposal passed. Gun owners are already screened through background checks when they buy guns, the NRA representatives said.

"In reality we're here to get the details of permitless carry ironed out," said Art Thomm, an NRA spokesman.

Officials of Alabama Gun Rights, another group with two seats on the panel, called for the passage of the permitless carry proposal, and also advocated for laws that would allow gun owners to carry weapons on college campuses.

"I want to have the ability to carry that gun into the classroom and defend myself," said Barry Cleland, the Alabama Gun Rights member.

The task force includes five lawmakers, five law enforcement representatives, four representatives from gun rights groups, and representatives from mental health and school organizations. There were no seats for groups expressly calling for more gun control.

Auburn resident Anne Leader, a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, sat in the audience. The conversation would have been different, she said, if gun violence prevention groups had a seat on the panel.

"I'm with law enforcement on this one," she said after the meeting. "The permit works. There's no need to change it."

Task force chairman Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, said the group would hold a public hearing on gun laws in November, with members of the public allowed to the panel for three minutes each.

Farley said he's received backlash for calling the panel, with gun rights advocates writing to tell him he should be impeached. He said the issue is too important to decide without study.

"I don't want us to pass a bill and say, well, we passed it because they have a strong lobby," he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.