Tennessee settles lawsuit over 18- to 20-year-olds and guns

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Gabe Ros talks to a customer at Shooter's Supply indoor range on April 22, 2021, in Hixson, Tenn.
Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Gabe Ros talks to a customer at Shooter's Supply indoor range on April 22, 2021, in Hixson, Tenn.

Note: This story was updated on Feb. 1 to correct the judicial status of the case.

NASHVILLE — Tennesseans aged 18 to 20 will be allowed to carry concealed firearms in public under the state's permitless gun carry law after the state settled a lawsuit filed by a California gun rights group saying the law's age restrictions on younger adults were unconstitutional.

Under the agreement, pending approval by U.S. District Court Judge Katherine A. Crytzer of Knoxville, state taxpayers will foot the bill for $47,250 in attorneys' fees and costs to the three plaintiffs.

The law, which Gov. Bill Lee pushed and his fellow Republicans in the legislature readily approved, allowed people age 21 and older to carry a concealed firearm in public without having a state-approved handgun carry permit showing they had taken a firearms safety and training course.

The statute excluded 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from its provisions, and three Knox County men in that age group were the plaintiffs who could not carry a handgun under the new statute, Public Chapter 108.

The law restricted permitless carry to people ages 21 and older, but it created an exception for members of the military or former service members under age 21 who had been honorably discharged.

The lawsuit objected to the distinction under the law for those with military service.

"Even the most law-abiding 18- to 20-year-olds are deemed categorically too immature and irresponsible to carry loaded handguns in public for self-defense or any other lawful purpose," the lawsuit said. "This is so even though they would, overnight, supposedly become mature and responsible enough if they were to join the military."

The settlement says the parties agree that the age restrictions in the law violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the 14th Amendment right to equal protection.

Officials with the Firearms Policy Coalition, which filed the lawsuit, declared victory.

"FPC Law is thrilled with today's settlement," said FPC Director of Legal Operations Bill Sack, an attorney on the case. "Our position all along has been that peaceable adults of all ages have human rights -- even those aged 18 to 20. To restore the rights of an entire community of folks in Tennessee is a great win for us."

Tennessee Firearms Association Executive John Harris, who in 2021 argued the law was unconstitutional, celebrated the victory and went on to criticize Lee, his fellow majority Republicans and leaders in the General Assembly and former Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

"Prior to its passage, Tennessee Firearms Association and its members were demanding that the 2021 law cover anyone who could legally possess a handgun, not just those 21 and up," Harris wrote in a release.

"Within a few weeks of that law being passed by the Republican supermajority, this federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in East Tennessee," Harris added.

Harris said that after the Tennessee Supreme Court last fall appointed Jonathan Skrmetti to replace the departing Slatery, the new attorney general took several actions signaling a change of opinion regarding whether Lee's legislation and the positions taken by the House and Senate sponsors were constitutional.

A Skrmetti spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Harris said the unconstitutionality of the age restrictions was something lawmakers "had been advised years ago was the proper constitutional conclusion and which the prior attorney general had refused to acknowledge."

Crytzer wrote that the State Department of Safety and Homeland Security is prohibited from enforcing the age restrictions and the department's Commissioner Jeff Long is to share copies of the order with the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association and the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.

The commissioner is also directed to review applications and "not deny issuance of such a permit on the basis of age alone," the judge wrote. The state has 90 days from Monday's order to begin processing the permit applications from 18- to 20-year-olds.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.