Published: Sep. 05, 2022, 7:00 a.m.
Alabama sheriffs and the head of the state’s county commission association are sounding alarms about the financial implications of removing concealed carry permit revenues from their budgets.
The cuts could be deep for county sheriffs and could shave off up to 50% or more from an agency’s budget within the next year.
Alabama legislators voted earlier this year to repeal the state’s requirement for a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Many sheriffs opposed the move, arguing the permits not only provide them a way to screen people who should not have a gun but also because the permits are a major source of their funding.
Some sheriffs say they already have seen a drop in concealed carry permit applications in the months before the new permitless carry law takes effect Jan. 1. Sheriffs in Montgomery and Baldwin counties say they have seen 40% drops in revenue already, or losses that range anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000.
Within the next 12 months, officials say the cuts will go deep. The annual revenues range from an estimate of $13 million to $15 million, according to Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the County Commission Association of Alabama. He said that estimate is based on between 650,000 to 750,000 pistol permits applied for each year.
“This is just another way of defunding law enforcement at a time when violent crime is on a rise,” Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham said. “I don’t think we will ever see funding from this come back and we need to look at other areas to get revenue to make sure we keep our officers trained and keep the latest equipment in our offices to help protect our communities.”
Brasfield said about 30 sheriffs attended his organization’s annual meeting last month in Orange Beach and that each reported “significant declines in revenue.”
“Honestly, one of the key elements in securing the votes for passage of the controversial legislation was the consistent message that local revenue would not be reduced in any way,” said Brasfield. “Sheriffs insisted that such a message was counterintuitive, and they were right.”
He added, “Almost from the minute the ink was dry on the new law, demand for pistol permits began to erode. By this time next year, all indications are that pistol permits revenue will be down by 50 percent statewide.”
State lawmakers say there is a provision in the permitless carry legislation to restore some of those revenues. They also say the money shortage could be address by lawmakers through budgeting next year.
The supermajority GOP Legislature, ahead of the primary elections, supported what they viewed as a popular political move by doing away with a requirement for gun owners to purchase a concealed carry permit.
The permits, which cost $20 per year, allow a gun owner to carry a pistol in their vehicles, in their jackets or otherwise hidden from view. Alabama has long been a state where gun owners can openly carry a gun in plain view, and routinely ranks among the Top 10 states in the U.S. for gun ownership.
Proponents who backed the legislation last spring say the sheriffs should not worry.
For one, they point to a provision in HB272 that establishes a fund and requires no less than $2 million be set aside each fiscal year for the next three years, to support sheriffs with any losses they might have from the drop in revenues.
Second, they say that anyone traveling to states with concealed carry permit requirements, such as Florida, will need to purchase one in Alabama.
“I don’t want to be in a situation where I am violating the law and the best way to do that is having a permit,” said state Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Birmingham. “And if there is a drop off (of permit applications) in Alabama, then we are the only state with millions of dollars set aside with a commitment to make sure the sheriffs do not lose revenue and that there is a public safety danger with less money for patrols and things like that.”
Treadaway said, “I know of no state that has gone to these lengths to ensure (sheriffs receive revenues).”
Brasfield, who came up with the $13 million-$15 million estimate, said he believes the legislation’s set aside represents “only a fraction of the total loss statewide.”
“The provisions of the 2022 law attempt to establish a pathway for awarding limiting grants to replace the lost revenue will clearly be insufficient,” he said.
Alabama will become the 25th state to become a “permitless carry” state on New Year’s Day in a move that had been long embraced by gun rights groups like the National Association for Gun Rights.
Proponents have called the legislation “Constitutional” carry, reflecting the view that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not place restrictions on the right to carry guns.
“Supporting guns in Alabama will always poll higher than supporting a sheriff’s extra budget,” said Brent Buchanan, an Alabama-based GOP pollster.
But the move also came amid objections by a bipartisan coalition of sheriffs and created a rare public split between law enforcement and Republican lawmakers over a major policy issue.
Sheriffs, when the legislation was approved, said they were concerned over public safety ramifications of eliminating the permits. They said the that permit applications provided a key tool in screening people who should not possess a gun, and without them, it makes their jobs more dangerous.
The loss of money could also pose a public safety risk, they say. In jeopardy is money that goes toward equipment purchases, capital improvements at jails, food purchases, and training.
Sheriffs say they will be turning to county commissions to make up for the losses. Elected Commissioners, throughout Alabama, are preparing annual fiscal year budgets this fall, which include the approval of sheriff budgets.
Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack said he believes most sheriffs are factoring in a “50% to 60%” reduction in revenues by this time next year.
He said that revenues with most agencies are already down by 20%-40%.
“We find our agencies turning to the commissions to make it up in our budgets,” said Montgomery Sheriff Derrick Cunningham, who said the money is primarily used for training and equipment purchases.
“Most agencies have to have 12 hours of continuing education to keep their arrest powers,” Cunningham said. “This is regulated by (the Alabama Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Commission) so that revenue (from the permits) is really needed to keep certified law enforcement officers on our streets.”
In smaller counties, sheriffs are juggling how they can move their agencies forward with less revenue at a time when hiring law enforcement is increasingly becoming a challenge.
“I’m trying to spend as less as possible,” said Marengo County Sheriff Richard Bates, who lost in the Democratic primary in May and who will be leaving office later this year. “We have vehicles here with over 200,000 miles on them and they need to be changed out, but I’ll let (the next sheriff) handle that.”
Brasfield and Mack said there are efforts to write legislation that would allow sheriffs to recoup more of the lost revenues.
Said Mack, “These are just merely discussions right now, but it strictly involves the process that a sheriff can get funds back from the state and has nothing to do with the actual permitless carry, open carry or anything to do with weapons.”
Brasfield said he is collaborating with the sheriffs on legislation that would require the state to fully reimburse the cost of lost pistol permit revenue and restore those revenues in each county to 2021 levels.
The state’s legislative fiscal office, ahead of the adoption of HB272 last spring, said the bill would reduce receipts to several counties “by an undetermined amount.”
Brasfield said the passage of legislation replenishing the sheriff’s budgets “will be one of our top priorities in 2023.”
Defending permitless carry
Some lawmakers might be unaware of the concerns sheriffs are expressing.
State Rep. Shane Stringer, R-Citronelle, who was the chief sponsor of the permitless carry legislation, said he has not had any one reach out to him personally with a concern about loss revenue. He said he has spoken to colleagues in the Legislature who assured him there will be money available for a sheriff’s department if they experience a dip in revenues.
The legislation creates a fund that is required to have at least a $2 million balance to support sheriffs who lose revenues from the lack of permit applications. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs will be responsible for paying out quarterly grants to sheriff departments to support the purchases they otherwise would have made with the permit revenues.
The fund was propped up with $5 million appropriated through the fiscal year 2023 General Fund. The state’s fiscal year begins on October 1.
Treadaway, the state lawmaker in Birmingham and a retired longtime member of the Birmingham Police Department, said he does not anticipate a major hit to the county sheriffs.
“What we are seeing across the country is that half the states now have constitutional carry,” he said. “Alabama is the only one out of all these states with money set aside for sheriffs for a loss of revenues who can file for a grant and, if they can show a loss of revenue, will be reimbursed.”
Treadaway also said that in other states where permitless carry was recently enacted, “there is no data showing a there has been any drop off” in the permit applications. That, he said, is due to reciprocity arrangements between Alabama and other states that do require a pistol permit to carry a concealed handgun. Aside from Florida, 24 other states still require a permit to carry a concealed gun.
Treadaway also said that a new database, administered by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, will be up and running by October. The database, adopted by lawmakers in April 2021, will single out people prohibited from possessing a firearm because of state or federal criminal convictions or because of a history of mental illness.
“The commitment is strong there that when the new law goes into effect and moves forward … that working with sheriffs to keep Alabamians safe is the priority of the Legislature,” Treadaway said.
Some sheriffs are worried that the new law will lead to more guns in their communities.
Some statistics suggest that might be the case. A 2018 analysis by the RAND Corporation showed that in states with more-restrictive concealed carry law, only 9.1% of handgun owners carried their firearm during a 30-day period. In contrast, in states with permitless-carry laws, more than 20% of handgun owners did so.
Clarke County Sheriff DeWayne Smith said he is less concerned with “driving around in beat up cars” than he is with the safety aspects of doing a job and not knowing whether someone pulled over during a traffic stop might be carrying a handgun when that person otherwise should not.
“We are all for gun rights,” said Smith. “But let’s be honest here, don’t you think there should be some people who should be carrying a gun? Since the first of the year, I’ve dealt with situations of people having mental issues and involuntarily committed, and they had guns on them. Next year, after January 1, it will be legal for them to carry those guns.”