How Alabama legislation banning Glock switches revived a ‘back the blue’ debate

Gun Rights

It’s been 500 days since a New Year’s Eve revelry in downtown Mobile ended in gunfire, leaving one person dead and 9 others shot.

Almost 400 days ago was the mass shooting in Dadeville, resulting in four deaths and 32 injuries during a tragic 16th birthday celebration.

These two tragedies, and others in Alabama, have something in common: The gunmen were armed with firearms with small – and cheap – devices called “Glock switches” or “auto sears” that converted the weapons into machine guns.

“We encounter these devices daily around our state and locally,” said Montgomery Sheriff Derrick Cunningham.

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Though illegal under federal law, Glock switches are abundant in Alabama. It has become such an issue that the state’s “Big 10″ mayors (those who represent the state’s largest cities), police chiefs, district attorneys and sheriffs called on Alabama lawmakers this spring for the creation of a new state law to criminalize them.

But for the second time in two years, law enforcement’s wishes brushed up against a political reality in ruby red Alabama in the form of powerful gun right interests. By the end of session last week, HB36 – which would have outlawed Glock switches under Alabama state law – died as time expired on the 2024 legislative session.

In 2022, a similar scenario played out over a debate authorizing permitless carry in Alabama despite law enforcement’s objections.

“Our Legislature is not being proactive as it relates to protecting our citizens,” said Cunningham, a Democrat. “We wait until it’s a big problem and then we try to be creative with enforcement.”

Said Republican Mobile County Sheriff Paul Burch, “There is just no good intent of someone carrying a handgun with a Glock switch on it. I am one of the biggest proponents of the 2nd Amendment that you’ll find, but that has to be common sense.”

State penalties

Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey

Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey speaks at the Alabama State House in support of a bill to create a state law against possession of guns with Glock switches or other devices that convert them to automatic fire.(Mike Cason/mcason@al.com)

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, would make anyone caught with a Glock switch on a pistol subject to a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

A person caught with a gun modified with a Glock switch already can be charged under federal law that labels the devices an illegal possession of a machine gun and carries penalties up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The Glock switch, a device that can be purchased for around $100 or less, is attached to the rear slide of a handgun and converts the pistol into an automatic weapon considered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to be illegal under federal law.

“Obviously, I wanted it to pass this year,” Ensler said. “It’s a public safety issue, and having the law on the books this year, I believe it could have held accountable some of those involved in gun violence.”

He added, “Ultimately, the bill did not pass this session because of opposition. It got caught up in the last few days when there was other stuff such as gambling and lottery and disputes between the House and Senate.”

Alabama, had it adopted HB36, would have joined 22 other states that prohibit auto sears, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a network that advocates for “common sense” gun law. Three states – Mississippi, Maryland, and Virginia – signed their laws this year.

The Alabama legislation, according to Everytown, took a narrower approach compared to other states in that it prohibited pistols outfitted with Glock switches, but did not criminalize the possession or the transfer of the auto sear itself.

“Auto sears can be used on semiautomatic firearms that are not pistols as well,” said Gillian Gurney, spokesperson for Everytown.

NRA’s position

Convention attendees line up at the registration booth at the NRA Annual Meeting held at the George R. Brown Convention Center Thursday, May 26, 2022, in Houston.

Convention attendees line up at the registration booth at the NRA Annual Meeting held at the George R. Brown Convention Center Thursday, May 26, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)AP

Bama Carry and the Alabama Firearms Association did not respond to requests for comment.

The National Rifle Association, in a statement, said conversion devices are already covered by federal law, and blamed President Joe Biden’s administration for not taking a stronger stance against them.

“Possession of these conversion devices is already a felony under federal law and their use in a violent or drug trafficking crime carries a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence,” Randy Kozuch, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement to AL.com. “The Biden Administration has the tools it needs to deter their use under federal law, but their soft-on-crime policies have left it up to the states to deal with this issue.”

Fredrick Vars, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said that state laws are being sought because federal law is “underenforced.” He said that only 5% of criminal prosecutions are federal.

Ensler said the NRA is holding a “neutral” stance on the legislation. But Vars said any legislation that might lead to a reduction of gun sales will be opposed by the nation’s largest gun lobby, including HB36.

Vars said that HB37, also sponsored by Ensler, established a voluntary do-not-sell firearms registry that would allow someone to submit their own name if they do not believe they should have a firearm sold to themselves.

“HB37 would have allowed people who know fear impulsive suicide to voluntarily suspend their own ability to purchase a firearm,” Vars said. “This law would have had no effect on gun owners, including NRA members, because they obviously wouldn’t sign up.”

He added, “What these two bills have in common is a potential to reduce gun sales. The NRA doesn’t care that machine guns are already illegal or that a gun is being purchased for a suicide attempt. Money is money.”

Gun rights, public safety

The type of guns that applied under HB36, came under scrutiny during the April 30 debate in the Alabama House before it passed out of the chamber on a 60-38 vote.

Rep. Rick Rehm, R-Dothan, said Ensler’s bill was too expansive, in that it would have prohibited any gun from being outfitted with a Glock switch. Ensler said he was committed to making sure HB36 was focused on pistols, and not long guns.

“The gun didn’t do anything,” Rehm said while debating the legislation with Ensler on the House floor. “A gun is an inanimate object, it’s a tool. A human being chose to do evil. Whether that gun is a semi-automatic, bolt-action or whatever, it takes a human being to do these crimes.”

The concern about how the bill was written almost led to shelving the bill on the House floor after Rep. Craig Lipscomb, R-Gadsden, called the matter a “dumpster fire.” Ensler said that killing the bill in the Alabama House would have been akin to “turning our backs on the blue,” or law enforcement in Alabama.

“I think it is difficult and hard to reconcile for those who publicly say they ‘back the blue’ and pay lip service that they back law enforcement, but then their votes are opposite to what law enforcement wants,” Ensler said.

His comments are like arguments that were raised in 2022, when lawmakers debated and ultimately voted in support of doing away with gun permits for people to carry concealed firearms. Law enforcement, two years ago, raised concerns about losing a tool they felt enhanced public safety in screening people who should not possess a gun.

“I realize not every lawmaker aligns 100 percent of the time, but it is frustrating to have people say they support law enforcement, but then go and vote opposite on what (law enforcement) wants on significant issues when it comes to the gun-related bills,” Ensler said.

Ongoing debate

Ensler said he doesn’t believe HB36 died because of general or specific objections to it, but because “of the clock running out on the session.”

Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, said the legislation likely fell victim to last-minute scrambling by legislative leaders to get a gambling and lottery package approved.

Still, he had concerns about language in the bill that may have outlawed binary triggers, or gun parts that allow someone to fire two rounds per trigger pull.

“We were walking a tight line there where you end up getting into a 2nd Amendment argument quickly,” Elliott said. “That won’t go over well in a Republican-controlled legislature.”

Ensler said he feels confident enough in the legislation to give it another go, in 2025.

“Knowing how far it got, and even to get it on the Senate calendar, it is a lot of progress,” he said. “In this state, to have any sort of gun-related legislation go that far is significant.”

He added, “My hope is that each individual lawmaker listens to their sheriffs and different police departments and stand and support (HB36).”

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