Law enforcement officials say a move to increase the penalty for having a stolen gun in Alabama will be an important tool in keeping streets and neighborhoods safer and helping to prevent tragedies like those that claimed the lives of police officers this year.
The Legislature passed a bill to make it a felony to receive a stolen gun, regardless of the value. Previously, the crime was only a misdemeanor if the weapon was worth less than $500.
Lawmakers and Mobile city officials were at the state Capitol on Thursday for a ceremonial signing of the bill with Gov. Kay Ivey. The bill takes effect Oct. 1.
Two police slayings this year exemplify the problem the law is intended to help address.
Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, and Sen. David Sessions, R-Mobile, sponsored the bill.
Simpson said more than 1,200 guns were stolen from vehicles in Mobile in 2018 and that other Alabama cities are fighting the same problem with thieves ransacking unlocked vehicles.
“They go through these cars and they take out the weapons,” Simpson said. “They steal the guns. And they’re trafficking these guns, they’re selling these guns, they’re using these guns in violent crimes.”
A person caught in the act of stealing a gun could already be charged with a felony. But Simpson said police are more likely to encounter people already in possession of stolen firearms, such as during a traffic stop.
“The way it was before, it was generally just a slap on the wrist, a misdemeanor, nobody could do much about it,” Simpson said. “Now we’ve added a felony enhancement to where we can actually punish those that are receiving that stolen property if that stolen property was a gun.”
Simpson was a prosecutor in Baldwin and Mobile counties for 12 years before his election to the Legislature. He’s now a lawyers in private practice.
Mobile Public Safety Executive Director James Barber said it’s clear that gun traffickers know that having a stolen gun was only a misdemeanor offense because he said most don’t bother to file off the serial numbers, which constitutes a felony.
Barber said the most recent homicide victim in Mobile was a homeowner who walked up on thieves stealing guns from a vehicle. Barber said people who knowingly possess stolen guns are likely going to use them for the wrong reason.
“He’s just a violent crime waiting to happen,” Barber said. “At some point, that trigger is going to be pulled. This allows us to deal with him before that trigger is pulled and that’s the only way to really do it.”
In addition to advocating for the new law, Mobile officials launched a publicity campaign to warn gun owners to make sure their weapons are secured. Barber said the results of the campaign are encouraging, a 40 percent drop in gun thefts so far this year as compared to the same time period last year.
“We respect everybody’s Second Amendment right to legally carry a weapon to protect themselves,” Barber said. “But help us to protect you and help us to protect the police officers by securing these firearms.”
Barber said a person who buys a gun for protection and then leaves it in an unlocked vehicle is making conditions more dangerous for him and his neighbors.
“It’s almost as bad as loading a 9-millimeter and putting it on your front porch before you go to bed,” Barber said.