On July 1, a new law went into effect creating a new exception in the state's prohibition against carrying a loaded handgun, rifle or shotgun in a vehicle. Until now, only state-issued handgun-carry permit holders could lawfully keep loaded firearms in their vehicles.
The new law says nonpermit holders now can, provided:
• They are not prohibited from possessing or receiving a firearm by federal law or purchasing a firearm under state law.
• They are in lawful possession of the motor vehicle.
Motor vehicles owned or leased by a governmental or private employer for the use of employees aren't covered if the employer has adopted a written policy prohibiting firearms or ammunition not required for employment within their motor vehicles.
Source: Legislative analysis, Tennessee General Assembly
Georgia lawmakers this year passed their own new gun law, this one expanding licensed gun owners' ability to go armed.
For example, the Safe Carry Protection Act added bars and churches, already permissible in Tennessee, if owners and churches allow them. And school board personnel can have weapons if approved by school boards, also permissible in Tennessee.
But there's been confusion over a provision in the Georgia law saying gun owners can carry a weapon into "unsecured government buildings," such as libraries or city halls, without local approval.
NASHVILLE - Under a new law that quietly took effect last week, many Tennessee gun owners may now legally keep loaded firearms in their vehicles even if they don't have a state-issued handgun-carry permit.
As of July 1, people who are legally able to possess a gun under state and federal law, you can keep a loaded handgun, shotgun or rifle in a car or truck you legally possess.
Previously, only those with state-issued handgun carry permits could legally keep loaded firearms in their vehicles. Those without carry permits could keep unloaded firearms in the vehicle if the ammunition was stored separately.
Proponents hail the measure as an expansion of gun rights and a fairness move for commuters who have no carry permits but are worried about safety, as well as for hunters.
"It's essentially an extension of the 'castle doctrine,' that you can defend your 'castle,' ... your home, if you feel threatened," said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, the Senate sponsor.
The new law, however, does not allow those without permits to carry loaded firearms outside their vehicle on streets or in businesses as permit holders can do.
Bell said the National Rifle Association-backed bill was a logical move, noting that courts "for years have recognized that you have private property rights that are associated with your car."
But some law enforcement officials have reservations about the change. Col. Tracy Trott, with the Tennessee Highway Patrol, voiced doubts during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this spring.
"I do have concerns as a law enforcement officer for guns to be more readily available in this business," Trott told lawmakers. "But my concerns are not enough for the administration to 'flag' the bill."
A 'flag' indicates to legislators that a governor, in this case Gov. Bill Haslam, is personally opposed to a measure.
Chattanooga's new police chief, Fred Fletcher, was appointed shortly after the bill passed. He has mixed feelings about the law, too.
A former top official in the Austin Police Department, Fletcher said Texas has allowed people to carry "long guns" -- shotguns and rifles -- for many years and officers "were very familiar and comfortable with that."
But, Fletcher said Tuesday, Chattanooga "is plagued by a number of violent crimes that involve handguns" and criminal gang members.
"This law will make it easier for people who are up to nefarious purposes to carry a gun, to go commit violence," Fletcher said. "That's not a news blast to anybody. If people are allowed to carry guns they will carry them both for good and for ill."
He said, however, it's up to the community or, in this instance, the state, to decide what laws they're comfortable with.
"It's my job to enforce them in an equitable manner and keep my public safety officers and the public as safe as I can in the environment in which they're placed," he said.
When the bill came up on the House floor in April, Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said he was concerned about allowing people without permits to tote weapons in their cars.
"The carry permit system is kind of designed to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of who should be carrying a weapon," Stewart.
Handgun-carry permit applicants undergo stringent criminal background checks and must pass mandatory gun-safety training, he noted.
"You can have a real problem if you have a loaded weapon in a car," Stewart said. "I'm not sure why the distinction we've got in the law isn't a good one, where you force someone to deliberately acquire and earn the status necessary to carry a loaded gun as opposed to just allowing everybody to carry a gun."
The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, countered that "thugs will have a gun regardless. ... No. 2, we have a constitutional right to have a gun. So if you're good enough to buy one, that means you've had to have a background check. You ought to be good enough to at least get it in your car."
The bill also won't allow those without carry permits to keep their loaded firearms in vehicles where parking lots are posted against guns.
Because of that, Tennessee Firearms Association Executive John Harris said he thinks the law is "poorly conceived" and warned it "creates traps."
"It says if you legally possess a weapon and you legally are in possession of a vehicle, you can transport [the firearm] whether it's a handgun, rifle or shotgun, loaded or unloaded.
But," Harris emphasized, the law says "you can't get it out; you can't walk around with it."
Bell and a number of lawmakers dismiss Harris, who routinely criticizes them.
The senator said he understands why law enforcement may have initial concerns, noting he has family members who are or have been police officers.
But he noted Tennessee police were unified in their opposition to the original handgun-carry permit law passed in the 1990s. The law never resulted in mass violence predicted by some critics, Bell said.
"I understand their perspective, but I also understand that citizens have a constitutional right to defend themselves," Bell said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.