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Tennessee legislature passes permitless handgun carry bill, which now heads to Gov. Bill Lee

( Tennessean )


The Tennessee General Assembly has approved Gov. Bill Lee's legislation to allow most adults to carry handguns without obtaining a permit, a measure some Republicans sought for years to pass.


The permitless carry bill, which supporters have dubbed "constitutional carry," passed the House of Representatives 64-29 on Monday night. Just five House Republicans voted against it. The bill was approved in the Senate on March 18 and can now be signed into law by the governor.


The law, which will take effect July 1, allows for both open and concealed carrying of handguns for people 21 and older without a permit as well as for military members ages 18 to 20. It does not apply to long guns, a point of contention among gun rights activists.


"This bill is not the end of the journey," House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said from the floor Monday evening, confirming an appetite remains in the GOP-controlled legislature to remove more gun restrictions in the future. "This is a massive step forward for freedom."


Lee's administration has estimated the legislation will cost the state as much as $20 million annually. The bill is backed by the National Rifle Association but opposed by the state's leading law enforcement groups, which have argued the change could increase crime and officer vulnerability.


Tennessee joins 18 other states that have approved some version of permitless carry.

"It seems that more is never enough when it comes to gun laws in this state," said Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis.


Law removes offense for most to carry handgun without permit, but boosts other gun crimes


While removing the misdemeanor offense for most people of carrying a handgun without a permit, the bill also increases punishments for certain gun crimes. The legislation boosts theft of a firearm from a misdemeanor to a felony and mandates six months of incarceration for the offense, up from the current 30-day sentence. It also bars felons convicted of possessing a firearm from early release.


Beyond felons and those convicted of domestic violence offenses, the new permitless carry right will not extend to people with a conviction of stalking, those with a recent DUI conviction or individuals who have been committed by the court to a mental institution.


Lee announced last year he was endorsing an effort to pass a permitless carry bill. But his plans were derailed as the pandemic worsened and the Senate announced it would take up only time-sensitive legislation.


Prior to Lee championing the issue in 2020, permitless carry bills filed by conservatives in the legislature failed to receive enough support to clear both chambers. Former Gov. Bill Haslam opposed the measure, while police and prosecutors for years have consistently spoken out against it.


While a Vanderbilt University poll found in December 2019 that Tennesseans were overwhelmingly against making it easier to purchase a firearm, there is no independent statewide public polling yet on permitless carry.


A 2019 poll commissioned by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group that has long spoken out against permitless carry, found 75% of Tennesseans opposed or strongly opposed removing permit requirements to carry a gun. Even more said they believed individuals should have to complete a course and obtain a permit to carry a loaded gun in public.


In 2019, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill allowing individuals to opt to take a much shorter online class to receive a basic permit, rather than an all-day in person course.


Lamberth on Monday said people "don't understand firearms" if they think the in-person course required under current state law will make someone proficient in gun use.


"I found it to be not a complete waste of time, but not extraordinarily helpful," Lamberth said of the class he took.


Questions raised on $20 million price tag estimate


Some Republicans in the legislature have quibbled about the actual estimated cost of the bill, arguing it will cost less than the administration's projection of $20 million. That figure comes from expected lost revenue from permits as well as increased incarceration costs.


The new law will result in a 20% reduction, or 36,335 fewer, handgun permit applications and renewals each year, the Lee administration has predicted. The state's existing handgun permitting system will remain in place, though is effectively neutered by the new law.


In a nod to some gun rights activists who believe Lee's permitless carry bill should extend further, Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill to apply to those 18 and older, as opposed to 21, as well as to all firearms, rather than just handguns.


Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, asked Lamberth why the bill did not apply to 18- to 20-year-olds or to all types of guns, based on supporters' argument that most everyone should be allowed to freely carry a firearm, per the Second Amendment.


Lamberth said this particular bill merely extended the right to everyone currently old enough to obtain a carry permit under state law.


Miller filed six amendments to the bill, including one to reimburse those who have previously purchased a lifetime gun permit but will no longer need it, though none of his changes were applied to the bill.

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