VALLEY, Ala. — When Jimmy Allen walked into the polling station at the Lakeview Volunteer Fire Department on June 3 to cast his ballot in Alabama's primary election, he had no idea that the .40-caliber pistol strapped to his side would raise eyebrows.
Allen votes religiously. No one had given his gun so much as a second glance before. But on this day, a polling official — his Aunt Rita, actually — took issue.
"She threw her hands in the air and said, 'No guns allowed!' " Allen recalled last week. "I laughed, because I thought she was being funny."
Aunt Rita was not. A sign outside the station entrance warned voters to leave their guns outside. "She's my aunt, and I respect my elders," Allen said. He put his pistol in his car, cast his vote and left.
But he did not go meekly. And because he did not, Alabamians who vote in Tuesday's runoff election will be able to pack heat openly and with confidence in many of the state's polling places.
Allen is one of several gun-toting Alabamians who were confronted last month after the Alabama Sheriffs Association, fearing that an open display of weapons might frighten some voters, urged the state's 67 counties to ban unconcealed firearms from polling places. (Concealed weapons are okay as long as the gun owner has a permit.) But it was Allen's protest, posted on his Facebook page that morning, that set in motion the chain of events that may have proved to be the ban's undoing.
The complaint prompted officials of Chambers County, the rural east Alabama jurisdiction where Allen lives, to ask the state's attorney general, Luther Strange, whether they did in fact have the power to ban unconcealed weapons from polling stations. Strange's reply, released last week, was an emphatic, if qualified, no: The state Legislature has already said where guns cannot be openly displayed, he wrote, and polling stations are not on the list.
That said, he added, there are a few no-gun locations that sometimes serve as polling places, such as high-security government buildings. And owners of private buildings like churches that often host voting stations always have the right to prohibit firearms.
Not everyone shares Allen's alarm or embraces guns with such ardor, of course. "We have a really good community here, a good group of people," said Skip McCoy, the private lawyer and county attorney who asked the attorney general for an opinion on banning guns at polling places. "I think the majority of people here believe everyone should have constitutional rights as long as they don't offend someone else."