Tennessee Democratic lawmakers say attorney general isn’t fighting for state's gun carry law

Agreement would give all 18- to 20-year-olds gun rights, not just those with military service

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti / Contributed Photo by Tennessee Supreme Court
Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti / Contributed Photo by Tennessee Supreme Court

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti is coming under criticism from some Democratic lawmakers for agreeing with a California-based gun rights organization on a proposed order in the group's pending federal lawsuit in Knoxville that if approved by the judge would extend the state's handgun-carry law, conceal-carry permit and "permitless" carry provisions to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.

The law currently excludes 18- to 20- year-olds from qualifying for the provisions unless they are serving in the military or have done so.

"It is yet another example of the Tennessee attorney general making political decisions instead of legal decisions," House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville attorney, said during an interview in his office. "Here you obviously have the Tennessee attorney general's office waving the white flag on an issue that they have a duty to defend, rather than actually defend it zealously."

The proposed order, filed last week in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Tennessee, had yet to be approved by Judge Katherine A. Crytzer, who is presiding over the case, as of Monday afternoon.

Skrmetti spokeswoman Elizabeth Lane said in an email the state had gone along with the agreed order based on the U.S. Supreme Court's broad handgun-carry ruling last year.

"The Supreme Court set precedent on Second Amendment issues in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen in June 2022," Lane said in an email.

Building on prior rulings, Supreme Court justices struck down a century-old New York law that had barred someone from going armed in public without a heightened need.

The Tennessee lawsuit was filed prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling as well as Skrmetti's start as the Tennessee government's chief lawyer. He was appointed state attorney general by the Tennessee Supreme Court last year and assumed office Sept. 1.

Prior to his becoming attorney general, Skrmetti was serving as Gov. Bill Lee's chief legal counsel. Before that, the Harvard School-trained lawyer had served as chief deputy attorney general for then-Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

The lawsuit was filed in April 2021 by the Firearms Policy Coalition Inc. on behalf of Knoxville plaintiffs Blake Beeler and Logan Ogle. It came shortly after the GOP-dominated General Assembly passed Republican Gov. Bill Lee's permitless carry bill. It allowed adults ages 21 and older to carry handguns either concealed or openly without a state-issued permit or the accompanying criminal background check. Tennessee's current 2021 law also allows 18- to 20-year-olds to carry if they are serving in the military or previously served.

After issuing a news release on the agreed order last week, California-based Firearms Policy Coalition Inc. officials did not respond to Chattanooga Times Free Press requests to discuss issues surrounding the agreed order now pending before Judge Crytzer.

The proposed agreed 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 alone violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

If the agreed order is signed by the judge, people under 21 could carry a handgun regardless of whether they have prior military service or not.

Attorneys for the Firearms Policy Coalition as well as Skrmetti himself moved last week for the judge to approve the order.

In the proposed order, Skrmetti and plaintiffs' attorneys cite the far-reaching U.S. Supreme Court 6-3 ruling in Bruen last year, which came following a series of mass shootings in other states.

Authored by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the ruling held Americans have historically had a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense.

The proposed order notes Tennessee Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Jeff Long has "actively" enforced, administered or implemented laws, and -- to the extent they exist -- any related regulations, policies, procedures, practices and customs regulating the possession and carrying of handguns that restricted individuals aged 18 years old to 20 years old from carrying handguns or obtaining permits to carry handguns on the basis of age alone.

Going forward, Long and his office and others acting under his direction would be "permanently enjoined" from implementing or enforcing that provision of law.

Long's office would begin processing enhanced handgun-carry permit applications no later than 90 days after the order takes effect, according to the agreed order.

John Harris, an attorney and executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said in a phone interview Monday that his view is the permitless carry provisions for 18- to 20-year-olds would become effective immediately after the judge approves the agreed order.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville attorney, said in an office interview last week, "I don't know why we would volunteer that our law is unconstitutional."

He also questioned Skrmetti's plan to go along with Justice Thomas and fellow conservative justices' "radical" decision and not fight to retain Tennessee's current prohibitions regarding 18- to 20-year-olds.

"Usually the job of attorney general is to defend statutes passed by the General Assembly," Yarbro said.

Some of Skrmetti's previous actions have rankled minority Democrats in the General Assembly, among them his comments about creating a special unit in the attorney general's office to press lawsuits against the federal government.

Unlike 46 other states where the state attorney general is popularly elected, Tennessee's is appointed. Applicants come before the five-member Tennessee Supreme Court, which conducts public and private interviews with the lawyers before voting on who becomes the attorney general.

Skrmetti and his two immediate predecessors, Republican Slatery and Robert Cooper, a Democrat, had previously served the governor.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, said in an office interview last week that his understanding was the problematic provision involving 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds led the state to strike a deal with the Firearms Policy Coalition.

"We did have the exemption in that for service personnel," McNally said. "And I think they went back and looked at the history and the Constitution of the state and found that the ... ban [on non-service members or veterans] would not survive a constitutional challenge. Originally, we thought it would, but they found some old stuff, materials."

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, a Portland Republican who sponsored the 2021 permitless carry law, which Harris noted does have some restrictions, said he was pleased with Skrmetti's move.

"I applaud the Tennessee Attorney General's efforts to protect Second Amendment rights in our state, particularly in the fashion that the House chose to do last year when we passed a bill that did almost this same exact thing," Lamberth said last week.

That bill did not clear the Senate.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.

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