Lieutenant governor leery of dropping Tennessee handgun-carry age to 18

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally speaks before a bill signing in Chattanooga on June 17. McNally has expressed concerns over some Tennessee legislators' push to lower Tennessee's handgun carry age to 18.

A House push is under way to lower the handgun-carry age to 18 in Tennessee following a legal agreement by the state attorney general, one in which critics say he acquiesced to a California gun-rights group instead of defending state law.

But those efforts could hit a roadblock in the form of Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who has concerns about the move to lower the age to 18 for Tennessee's gun-carry laws as well as the deal cut by Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti in a federal lawsuit.

McNally was "very much in favor" of the permitless carry law as it was passed in March 2021 with the age set at 21, according to spokesman Adam Kleinheider. The Oak Ridge Republican is recovering from having a pacemaker inserted last week and reported to be feeling better and ready to return to work.

"While he was disappointed to learn of General Skrmetti's legal analysis, he understood it," Kleinheider said. "Lt. Gov. McNally will evaluate any bill to officially lower the age, with this new analysis in mind, as the bill progresses through both houses of the General Assembly."

McNally's cool stance toward Skrmetti's decision and the pending legislation could put him at odds with the House, though, where Speaker Cameron Sexton is ready to lower the age.

(READ MORE: Tennessee settles lawsuit over 18- to 20-year-olds and guns)

"I think what you'll see come out of the House is a true constitutional carry bill that goes to (age) 18 that does include changing handguns to firearms and takes away the ... affirmative defense part as well," Sexton, a Crossville Republican, said recently.

The Speaker added that he's had conversations with the Skrmetti's office about lowering the age to 18, partly as a result of the court case.

U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Crytzer in East Tennessee was to hold a hearing Wednesday before making a decision on the proposed order signed by Skrmetti that would allow Tennesseans ages 18 to 20 to carry weapons under the permitless carry law and the state's handgun-carry and conceal-carry permit guidelines.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported the Attorney General's Office said it made the agreement, in part because of the wide-ranging effect of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down an old New York law prohibiting people from carrying weapons without a "heightened need." The decision came in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen in June 2022.

The Attorney General's Office declined to answer questions this week from the Tennessee Lookout, citing ongoing litigation. Skrmetti took over the case after former AG Herbert Slatery retired last year.

Firearms Policy Coalition Inc. of California filed its suit against Tennessee in April 2021 for Knoxville plaintiffs Blake Beeler and Logan Ogle after the legislature passed Gov. Bill Lee's permitless carry bill, which allows law-abiding citizens over 21 to carry handguns without a state permit. The law also enables active-duty military and those who've been discharged to carry even if they're under 21.

(READ MORE: First sweeping federal gun crime report in 20 years released)

The Times Free Press reported the proposed order states, "The Challenged Scheme regulating the possession and carrying of handguns that restricts individuals aged 18 years old to 20 years old from carrying handguns or obtaining permits to carry handguns on the basis of age along violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

State Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, broached the court agreement as he introduced legislation in a House subcommittee Tuesday lowering the gun-carry age to 18.

During debate on that bill, Todd confirmed that his legislation would enable a person to carry an M16 on Lower Broadway in Nashville.

"If this became law, we would join 44 other states in doing that," he said.

A vote on Todd's bill was postponed until next week when the subcommittee ran out of time.

Aside from questioning Todd's bill, Democrats roundly criticized Skrmetti for cutting the deal.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons argued that House leaders are pushing the lower age because Skrmetti "continues to make political decisions rather than legal decisions."

"The Tennessee attorney general, like any lawyer, has a duty to zealously represent and defend his client. General Slatery was doing that. General Skrmetti came in and immediately waved the white flag and entered into agreed order on a fairly debated question of law," Clemmons said.

(READ MORE: UTC students express concern over proposed bill allowing firearms on campus)

Clemmons contends Skrmetti breached his duty to the state and enabled state law to be changed by the judiciary branch.

Meanwhile, state Sen. London Lamar, a Memphis Democrat, argued that allowing 18-year-olds, including those still in high school, to carry handguns would be "one of the most irresponsible things" the state could do, especially if they have no military experience or training.

"Tennessee has some of the highest violent and gun crime rates in this nation, and it's only going to further exacerbate (the problem)," Lamar said.

Lamar is sponsoring legislation to remove Davidson and Shelby counties from the permitless carry law.