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 Smith & Wesson M&P Pro Series C.O.R.E. pistol strapped to his side -- a weapon that fires 15 rounds from a single clip, plus the one already in the chamber -- would raise eyebrows.
Mr. 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!' " Mr. 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," Mr. 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 into many of the state's polling places.
Why anyone would want to take a gun into a voting booth is the wrong question. "I don't wear my seatbelt only when I'm going to have an accident," Mr. Allen said.
Mr. 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 OK, as long as the gun owner holds a permit.) But it was Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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.
Some see even those exceptions as an assault on their freedom. A founder of the gun-rights organization BamaCarry Inc., Robert Kennedy, left his polling place, a church annex, rather than surrender his firearm, the group's president, Eddie Fulmer, said in an interview. The news website al.com quoted Mr. Kennedy as calling Mr. Strange's opinion "horrible." He added that the exemption allowing private buildings to bar the open carrying of guns "places somebody's private property rights over somebody's right to vote."
But even among some less passionate gun owners, Mr. Allen's complaint about the firearms ban strikes a chord. If many people associate firearms with this nation's epidemic of mass shootings and mindless violence, Chambers County is a place where, as Mr. Allen said, his boyhood friends drove pickups to school with gun racks in the windows, and carried pistols before they hit puberty.
Under state law, anyone who has legally bought a gun is entitled to strap on a holster and carry it in plain sight.