Tennessee lawmakers send 'permitless' handgun-carry bill to Gov. Lee

Tennessee House of Representatives / Photo by John Partipilo

NASHVILLE - A bill allowing Tennesseans to publicly carry a handgun without a state-issued license and with no required firearms training or criminal background checks won final approval in the House Monday night following spirited debate.

The "permitless carry" bill was brought by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who is expected to sign it. Previously passed by the Senate, it was approved in the House on a 64-29 vote.

Senate Bill 765 extends the state's existing concealed-carry law to open carry of handguns, unlike current law which says they must be concealed. The new bill applies to people 21 and older while allowing military service members ages 18 to 20 to carry as well.

Critics charged the bill goes too far, while some gun-rights advocates, including the Tennessee Firearms Association, have argued Lee's bill - which was backed by the National Rifle Association - doesn't go far enough because, among other things, it excludes long guns.

Responding to those groups, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, the bill's sponsor, called the measure "a massive step for freedom but it's not the end of the road."

Law enforcement organizations have largely opposed the legislation.

Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, chastised GOP colleagues, saying that while they are fond of touting their support for law enforcement, "there's not a police officer that believes this makes things safer.

photo Gov. Bill Lee delivers his third State of the State on Feb. 8, 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

"In fact," Mitchell said, "most major police organizations in this state all oppose this. They all say this is going to harm police officers. You're harming the 'blue' with the vote on this bill."

Lamberth countered that there are a "great number of officers supporting the bill. I guarantee you this bill will make Tennessee safer than it is today."

In 2019, GOP lawmakers approved a law creating a bifurcated gun-permit system. It allowed Tennesseans who wished to watch a 90-minute online training video, instead of live training, to qualify for 'concealed carry' gun permit. It took effect that January.

It created a two-tiered permitting system under which those who took the eight-hour live course are able to carry a handgun openly or concealed. Those only watching the video are not allowed to open carry.

Tennessee law currently makes it a criminal misdemeanor to carry a handgun without a permit. Lee's bill removes that in most instances. Lamberth stressed that the measure also tightens penalties for gun crimes such as theft. The penalty is no longer a "smack on the wrist" jail sentence of 30 days but a mandatory six months, Lamberth said.

If signed as expected, the law will go into effect July 1.

Eighteen states have some form of permitless carry.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

photo Shaundelle Brooks, appearing with a group of faith leaders, speaks near the Tennessee Capitol Monday, March 29, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Brooks spoke against a bill that would lift permitting requirements to carry a handgun. Brooks' son, Akilah DaSilva, was one of four people killed in a shooting at a Nashville Waffle House in 2018. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)