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Bobby Ray fires a handgun at the shooting range during a concealed carry permit class at Shooter's Supply on Saturday, May 11, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Tennessee legislature has passed a bill that would allow people to carry concealed handguns without going through a carry permit class like the one offered at Shooter's Supply.

NASHVILLE — Beginning Jan. 1, Tennesseans can qualify for a new state-issued "concealed carry" handgun permit simply by watching a 90-minute online training video, with no requirement for live firearms training.

The law, which still requires applicants to pass a criminal background check, is a dramatic overhaul of the state's nearly 24-year-old handgun carry permit law.

It's one of 18 laws passed this year by the General Assembly that go into effect in 2020. And it's easily the most controversial.

Tennessee's existing handgun carry permit law now allows some 631,000 people ages 21 and older to carry a handgun either openly or concealed in public. It requires they take eight hours of training, including live-fire training.

The new law creates a two-tiered permitting system.

— The existing license is known as an "enhanced handgun carry permit." Permit holders can still carry a handgun openly or concealed. Newcomers wishing to obtain one still can by taking the eight-hour course with the live-fire training. Obtaining a new enhanced carry permit will cost $100 — same price as the current permit — and is good for eight years. There is also a lifetime enhanced permit costing $300. Current permit holders need pay only $200 for the lifetime permit.

— Others interested in going armed publicly can get the concealed carry permit for $65 after watching an electronic, video or online course of at least 90 minutes. It's intended to convey basic knowledge and skills necessary for safe handling and storage of firearms and ammunition along with firearm safety rules, handgun uses, features, basic skills and techniques, safe cleaning, transportation and storage methods. But the $65 permit limits where you can carry in public. And it does not allow for open carry. It includes a test "that confirms competency of the course or class curriculum."

But critics question it because there is no live firearms training component.

Moreover, if holders of a new Tennessee concealed-only permit want to travel out of state, they'd better check whether the state where they're going recognizes it. While Tennessee has reciprocal agreements with other states based on its current handgun carry permit standards, a number of other states may not recognize the validity of the concealed carry permit due to decreased training requirements.

That's not an issue with the enhanced carry permit.

Concealed-carry permits are good for eight years. There is no lifetime buy option.

As the bill was pending last spring, Kat Chandler, a volunteer with the Tennessee chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and a bill critic, said that to get a driver's license "we require all people to pass a test demonstrating they have knowledge of road safety. And they have to drive in a car with an instructor to show they can operate a vehicle properly. And we think that the same kind of processes should be applied to firearms because they're also dangerous machinery."

But the bill's primary House sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, argued training can be sufficiently obtained through the online video on hunting safety. Efforts to interview Holt on Friday and Saturday were unsuccessful.

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, a permit bill co-sponsor, said Saturday he believes the law is necessary for those people who work almost constantly.

"It's very difficult for them to get to training," he said. "In fact, we were contacted by people who simply had no time to get training.

"I think it'll benefit a very limited number of people, but everyone should be accounted for and not ignored in the process," Carter said. "Personally, I think the more training the better. But I think everyone needs to get a start."

Carter, who has owned and used guns since childhood, said he took a firearms training course so he could join a local gun club.

"I found it fascinating," Carter said, adding he learned a great deal. "I think everyone should go — not [be] compelled to go — but people who really love and respect" firearms should.

At the same time, Carter has never sought a handgun carry license. That's because he says the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees him the right to carry.

"If I've got a constitutional right to do something, why would I pay and have to have a license?" he asked.

Multiple efforts to pass a constitutional carry bill, whereby no one needs a permit to go armed, have repeatedly failed in the Legislature.

Tammy Zirk is co-owner and operations manager of Zirkops Training in Harrison, which offers various firearms-training courses, including classes for handgun-permit seekers. She said the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees the permitting process, had reached out to see if the family owned business was interested in submitting a training video for online permitting applications.

"We at this point are not even sure we're going to participate because we don't really feel that's enough training, mainly because we see so many people coming through our class that have never touched a gun before," Zirk said. "They have no gun safety skills."

Some people who have used guns their whole lives might feel like a 90-minute video is enough for proper training, but there are other people who don't have that background.

"There needs to be something" to give them more comprehensive training, she said.

The business will continue to offer its eight-hour course for the enhanced handgun permit.

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

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