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Survey: Alabama gung-ho for guns
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Capital Bureau
Next time you walk into your favorite Alabama restaurant, look around. Chances are that two-thirds of the customers will own a gun and nearly half will have a permit to carry a concealed weapon into the establishment.

That's according to the results of a new Press-Register/University of South Alabama poll. Sixty-six percent of respondents said they own a gun and 46 percent have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The telephone survey of 424 Alabama residents was conducted Monday through Thursday, with a 5-percentage-point margin of error.

More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they agree with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last month in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which a majority of the justices ruled that the Second Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual's right to bear arms.

"It's not surprising, given the fact Alabama is a relatively conservative state where it's not only a constitutional issue, but a lot of people have guns and a lot of people hunt," said Keith Nicholls, director of the USA Polling Group, which conducted the survey.

Alabama has some of the least restrictive gun ownership laws in the nation, and experts said Thursday that the high court's decision will not affect the state. Permits to carry guns are only required for concealed weapons and there is no requirement for handgun owners to be licensed.

Of respondents with guns, 67 percent said they own a handgun, 54 percent a rifle and 56 percent a shotgun.

The poll results reflect a rate of gun ownership that is close to double the nation's, said Doug Pennington, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a Washington, D.C.-based gun control group.

Pennington knew of no research to explain that difference, but speculated that it is woven into the fabric of society. "There's a tradition and a culture that has grown over the generations, passed down from one to the other," he said.

At the National Rifle Association, the Virginia-based gun owners lobby, spokeswoman Rachel Parsons saw the Press-Register/USA poll results as further confirmation that a majority of Americans believe the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own firearms.

A slight majority ? 52 percent ? said it is "very important" or "somewhat important" to have a firearm or ammunition when facing a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, while 46 percent said it is "not important" or "not very important."

The Alabama Emergency Management Agency bans firearms in its emergency shelters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency did ban firearms in trailer parks for victims of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, but later lifted it after protests from gun advocacy groups.

A little more than half of respondents ? 53 percent ? said they do not keep their weapons loaded at home.

While Alabamians support gun ownership, they do think there should be some restrictions in certain cases. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed said felons who have paid their debt to society should not have a right to own a gun while 77 percent said they favor prohibiting ownership of fully automatic weapons.

Those numbers largely square with the beliefs of the Alabama Sheriff's Association, said executive director Bobby Timmons. The group supports individual gun ownership and banning ownership of automatic weapons.

"An automatic weapon is not used to kill anything except a person," Timmons said. "You're entitled to hunting weapons, (but) an automatic was invented with the intention to kill somebody, not an animal."

Gary Palmer, director of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, called the automatic weapons ban question an "uneducated debate," saying some confuse fully automatic weapons, which fire bullets as long as the trigger is pulled, with semi-automatic weapons, which fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger.

The federal assault weapons ban, which lasted from 1994 to 2004, expanded a 1934 ban on automatic weapons ? which is still in place ? to cover certain types of semi-automatic firearms.

The NRA's Parsons signaled disagreement with respondents who believe that people should be barred from keeping machine guns and fully automatic weapons in their homes.

Anyone wanting to own such a weapon faces a lengthy and demanding review process, including several background checks, Parsons said, adding that legally owned fully automatic firearms result in little or no crime.

"The NRA stands firmly by the notion that law-abiding citizens are not the problem," she said.

A Press-Register/USA poll conducted in 2000 found that 60 percent of respondents wanted stricter control of gun sales, but 63 percent said they believed such measures would do little to reduce violent crime.

Last week's poll also found significant disparities in gun ownership. Eighty-percent of people surveyed who live in rural areas possess firearms, while 54 percent of those in suburban areas do. Seventy-five percent of whites said they own guns, while only 40 percent of blacks own them. Experts contacted by the Press-Register said they did not know the exact reasons for those disparities.

Sixty-one percent of suburban gun owners said they keep their guns loaded, while only 40 percent of rural ones said they do.

"My speculation is that people have more practical uses for weapons in rural areas," Nicholls said. "In suburban areas, they're more concerned about protecting themselves."

(Press-Register Washington Bureau Reporter Sean Reilly contributed to this report.)

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