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NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee's controversial bill to let Tennesseans carry handguns publicly without training, state-issued permits or background checks moved through a key Senate panel Tuesday.

That came despite concerns voiced by law enforcement officials and pleas from a mother whose son died in a 2018 shooting spree at a Nashville Waffle House.

The Republican-run Senate Judiciary Committee passed the permitless or "constitutional carry" bill, sponsored by panel Chairman Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, on a party-line, 7-2 vote.

"There's no secret about this bill," Bell said, noting it is "very similar to what's passed in 17 states," while 31 states "recognize the right to carry openly."

Bell later added that "the bill recognizes the rights of the citizens who live in the state while hammering those who would use guns in the commission" of crimes.

Others voting for Senate Bill 2671 included Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma. Action in a House subcommittee was later deferred to March 10.

Among those testifying against the Senate bill was Shaundelle Brooke, whose son, Akilah DaSilva, was killed in the 2018 Waffle House shooting.

"Looking at his cold, motionless body in a box was painful," Brooke told lawmakers. "It's something that no mother should ever, ever experience."

"It's impossible to imagine the pain you feel when your loved one is murdered," she said, warning that the governor's permitless carry bill would create more situations in which "disturbed" people like the mentally ill man who killed her son would go armed publicly.

Lee and fellow Republicans argue the bill will boost public safety and point to its increased penalties for criminals carrying handguns and for gun-related crimes, including gun thefts.

The bill would allow adult Tennesseans age 21 and over to carry the firearms. It also retains the state's current, bifurcated handgun-carry permit system, which allows open or concealed carry for those who take eight hours of training and concealed permits for those who take advantage of a new, 90-minute video for training. Both permits require Tennessee Bureau of Investigation background checks.

Such a permit still would be required to carry a weapon into a number of other states.

Lee's proposed law also includes a provision extending it to members of the military who are 18 to 20 years old.

Matt Harriman, state director for the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, told lawmakers that "at one time or another, every state was a permitless carry state."

He said "permitless carry will not allow prohibited persons to carry or buy guns. Prohibited persons are still prohibited from possessing a firearm."

And Harriman said despite critics' charges, states enacting permitless carry legislation "do not devolve into the Wild West. There is no evidence that permitless carry increases crime, especially murders with a handgun."

Maggi Duncan, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, said several law enforcement concerns about officer safety and public safety aren't addressed in the legislation. Police can now quickly ask someone who is carrying for their handgun carry permit. That won't be as easy now in situations where officers must act quickly, she said.

Another issue Duncan cited is officers' current ability to deny carry permits based on criminal records or other problems such as mental "defects." Tennessee rejected some 53,000 permits last year based on mental "defects," she said.

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

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