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Gov. Bill Lee, announces plans to introduce legislation that would make Tennessee the latest state to allow residents to carry guns without obtaining a permit during a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Mark Zaleski/For The Tennessean)

This story was updated at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, with more information.

NASHVILLE — Flanked by fellow Republicans, Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday announced he will push legislation to allow most adult Tennesseans to carry handguns without having to undergo training or criminal background checks.

"The Second Amendment's clear and concise and secures the uninfringed right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms," Lee said during a news conference at the state Capitol, a building that bars current handgun-permit holders from bringing in their firearms. "Today, I'm announcing that we will be joining 16 other states in this nation by introducing a constitutional carry law in the state of Tennessee."

Lee, who has given nuanced comments on permitless and so-called "constitutional carry" both during his 2018 campaign for governor and his first year in office, said the effort is "about increasing freedom for Tennesseans" while also increasing jail time for criminals who misuse guns, as well as steal the weapons from vehicles and other places.

He said the latter is an increasing problem in the state and there are bills to require higher minimum sentences for gun theft as well as providing guns to minors and possession of guns by felons. The governor did not provide copies of the legislation to reporters. But estimates are it could cost the state some $20 million.

The governor's "permitless carry" measure, also known as "constitutional carry," will allow gun owners to carry their firearms openly or concealed and go anywhere guns are allowed. But the same prohibitions against carrying weapons at schools and parks, as well as businesses, churches and the like that post signs stating no guns are allowed, will remain in effect, the governor said.

The state also will maintain its existing bifurcated handgun-permit program, which passed in 2019. Obtaining a permit requires training — the type and length depends on whether gun owners seek a concealed or open carry permit — as well as background checks and a permit fee.

Permitless carry costs nothing and requires no training. However, those who choose that option won't be able to carry their firearms in other states unless those states have reciprocal agreements pertaining to permitless carry.

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Members of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control advocacy group, waits Thursday for Gov. Bill Lee's announcement of legislation that would make Tennessee the latest state to allow residents to carry guns without obtaining a permit. (Photo by Mark Zaleski/For The Tennessean)

Lee's announcement came in a packed room with several dozen Republican lawmakers on hand. Given the GOP's super majority in both the House and Senate, the legislation likely will pass.

Also present at Lee's announcement were members of the group Moms Demand Action, which opposes permitless carry.

"When people have easy access to guns, unfortunately many people are going to die because of that," said Kristi Cornett, a Portland, Tennessee, member of Moms Demand Action.

Cornett said she believes friends in the "gun safety community," including arms intructors, will oppose the legislation. Cornett noted she is in the process of obtaining a carry permit. "I think it's very important, because you go through the background check system. — It helps people know how to use their gun responsibly and safely."

Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, called it a "sad day" when five people died Wednesday in a workplace shooting in Missouri "and we follow it up by creating the Wild West in Tennessee. You know, 2017 was the first year in this country where more people died in gun deaths than they did automobile deaths. And our answer is to create open carry, Wild West permitless carry in this state?"

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, an attorney and former judge who joined Lee at the announcement, called it the "best bill I've ever seen. It trusts the law-abiding citizen, which, to my knowledge, no one has been murdered by a law-abiding person. But it dramatically increases the penalties for those who misuse guns. And that's exactly what I've always held out for."

"This trusts those who are trustworthy, it punishes those who are not," Carter said.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said, "this is the first time we've had a bill on this subject that I could support. Everybody thinks we ought to vote for a concept. And we don't. We vote for bills up here that have specifics."

Gov. Lee's proposed permitless carry bill

— Extends ability to carry firearms to law-abiding adults ages 21 and older and doesn't require a permit, training or background check.

— Increases the penalty for theft of a firearm to a felony.

— Provides a sentencing "enhancement" for theft of a firearm from a vehicle.

— Increases minimum sentences for theft of a firearm from 30 days to 180 days.

— Increases sentences for unlawful possession of a firearm by violent felons and felony drug offenders, possession of a handgun by a felon and unlawfully providing a handgun to a juvenile or allowing a juvenile to possess a handgun.

Source: Governor's office

Gardenhire said in the past he has been "reluctant, very reluctant, and told people I wouldn't be for a constitutional carry [bill] as it's been drafted in the past. This is one — I think I can support wholeheartedly because it's a bill that covers the areas that we need to really focus on. It's not a concept, it's a specific bill."

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said the legislation would hit thieves who have been stealing guns from vehicles across the state.

"That's fewer guns on the street that are going to be in the hands of murderers," the former prosecutor told reporters.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, predicted "the Republican Caucus will be voting for this bill." Republicans account for 73 of the 99 House members.

During his announcement, Lee noted that the theft of guns from vehicles went up 85% over the last two years.

Asked later if gun owners who leave their firearms in unlocked vehicles or in open sight of passersby bear some responsibility and should face legal consequences for negligence, Sexton said, "you're assuming they left it on their [seat], but it could have been in the glove box or somewhere else, it could have been in the trunk."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville called the governor's bill "reckless" and "dangerous."

"In a state where anyone can go into a parking lot and purchase an AK-47 or an AR-15 without a background check, I don't think loosening restrictions and allowing anyone to carry guns into our grocery stores, restaurants and offices is a wise move," Stewart said. "This is obviously a politically motivated maneuver designed to appeal to the more radical members of his party that will ultimately endanger Tennessee families."

Several years ago, Stewart drew attention and harsh criticism from Republicans, including Carter, when he came to a House committee hearing on guns with an unloaded assault-style rifle that he said had been partially dismantled.

According to 2019 state Department of Safety figures, 5,453 Tennesseans that year — out of more than 600,000 — had their licenses revoked, suspended or denied because of issues ranging from misdemeanor or felony arrests or convictions to failure to pay child support, which is linked to various licenses.

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

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