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Caught in gambling debate crossfire, gun safety bill to return next year, sponsor vows

MONTGOMERY, Ala – Alabama Rep. Phil Ensler, D-Montgomery, says he intends to reintroduce a gun safety bill next year after it was sidelined in the Senate last week amid fierce debates over gambling legalization.

Ensler’s House Bill 36 would have banned the possession of handguns modified with what are known as trigger activators, devices that allow a semi-automatic weapon to fire at rates similar to fully automatic weapons. The bill would have made possession of such modified firearms a Class C felony.

Filed well ahead of this year’s session, HB36, after securing the endorsement of several law enforcement agencies, including the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, successfully passed out of the House, and later a Senate committee.

While the bill was placed on the Senate’s calendar for last Thursday – the bill’s last hope of becoming law this year – members’ off-floor debates over legislation that could have legalized gambling in the state took up a bulk of  the day, leaving HB36 and others on the cutting room floor.

“The only reason it didn’t get voted on was it just got caught up in the back and forth between the House and Senate on gaming and unrelated issues,” Ensler told Alabama Daily News on Monday.

While lamenting the fact that his bill failed to come up for a vote as disappointing, Ensler said he believes it had the support to pass, based on his own discussions with Senate members.

“The encouraging news is that the votes were there in the Senate for it to pass, so there wasn’t a major issue with the substance, the merits of the bill, it was just the clock ran out,” he said.

“I single-handedly counted them and made sure I talked with every senator. I knew there was going to be some opposition, but there was going to be enough there.”

The bill went through several iterations between its filing and what was scheduled to appear on the Senate floor. 

One such change was that the original bill applied to all firearms, while an amendment adopted in the House narrowed its application to just handguns. Another change saw all violations constitute a Class C felony, whereas the original bill made first violations punishable with 100 hours of community service, and subsequent violations a Class C felony.

In Alabama, gun violence has increased in recent years, with fatalities from gun violence increasing by 54% between 2012 and 2021. As of last year, gun violence became the leading cause of death for Alabama children and teens.

Ensler first filed his bill banning trigger activators during the 2023 legislative session in the wake of the deadly Dadeville shooting that left four dead and 32 injured. Given that Ensler’s first bill aimed at banning trigger activators was filed with less than two months remaining during that session, it failed to make any significant ground.

“Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children, and to have another year now go by where this law isn’t on the books is just really troublesome,” he said.

“The encouraging news though is that we got it through the House and that the support was there in the Senate. I need to make sure I keep that strong coalition together of Democrats and Republicans and pre-file it again quickly next year.”

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