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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee addresses attendees at his ceremonial signing of a permitless handgun-carry law during a June 2, 2021, event at the Beretta USA gun manfacturing plant in Gallatin, Tenn. (Photo by Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press).

NASHVILLE — A majority of Tennessee voters say they disapprove of a new law pushed by Gov. Bill Lee that allows most adults ages 21 and older to carry a handgun in public with no state permit, according to a poll released earlier this week.

Fifty-nine percent of the 1,000 voters surveyed in the Vanderbilt University poll said they disapprove of the "constitutional carry" measure, while 39% said they approve of it.

The measure faced less opposition among Lee's fellow Republicans, with 41% of them opposing it, according to the survey.

Fifty-seven percent of Republicans said they supported the measure, as did eight percent of Democrats and 38% of independents. Opposing it were 92% of Democrats and 62% of independents, according to data provided by Vanderbilt.

Asked if he was concerned about potential political risks with the majority of Tennesseans opposing the law, Lee said, "I think we've done the right thing for Tennessee, and Tennesseans will see that. And the data shows that as well, so that's why we did that."

The bill had been pushed unsuccessfully in the past. Lee said his administration analyzed the issue and looked at how it has worked in 18 other states with similar policies.

"Public safety's very important to me as part of our public safety agenda," the governor said.

Lee said "the process of constitutional protection of those rights is important to me as well, especially and importantly for law-abiding citizens. So that analysis and the culmination of that is why we brought that forward. And I'm glad that we did."

Last week, Lee held a ceremonial signing of the legislation at the gun manufacturer Beretta USA's facility in Gallatin. He had already signed the bill into law on April 8.

Carol Frazier, a volunteer with the Tennessee chapter of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement that "this latest poll makes it even more clear how out of touch Governor Lee and extremist lawmakers are with most Tennesseans."

Frazier said, "we don't want permitless carry, and seeing Gov. Lee waste taxpayer dollars and all of our time parading this bill at Beretta HQ proved yet again who our governor is looking out for. He'd rather line the pockets of gun manufacturers than listen to his constituents."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who carried the bill in the Senate, said the numbers of Tennesseans backing the bill "are actually higher than what I saw a couple of years ago.

"I think more people support permitless carry now due to the constant anti-Second Amendment rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C.," Bell added. If that continues, he said, "I think you'll see support for this law to continue to grow."

Josh Clinton, a Vanderbilt University political science professor and the poll's co-director, said he didn't find the results surprising because he believes "most people think a permit is such a low-bar requirement that most find [it] unobjectionable.

"This was a policy that was clearly being driven by a few highly connected interests and supporters of the policy — a policy that is really only motivating a subset of Republican primary voters. Most Republican voters, in general, did not identify it as a policy priority."

Only 4% of the entire 1,000-person survey listed "guns" as a "top priority." It was the lowest among the six options offered. The economy came in No. 1 at 28%.

As for whether opposition is a cause of concern, Clinton said, "It is hard to see how this would be a liability for Gov. Lee for two reasons. First, our poll reveals that they approve of the job he is doing despite this difference of opinion."

Secondly, Clinton said, the effects are "presumably largest among Republican base voters who are passionately in favor of permitless carry. It is not clear that those who disagree would vote against Gov. Lee on the issue. Who would they vote for? A more 'moderate' Republican in a primary? I can't imagine a Republican challenger given Lee's approval."

The survey found 65% of voters approved of the job that Lee, who took office in January 2019, is doing. Another 29% said they disapprove.

Moreover, Clinton said, "I am not sure which Democrat in the state has the name recognition and appeal to challenge Lee, and I cannot imagine that Republicans who disagree with Lee on the issue would vote for a Democrat given the importance of other issues."

The law, Public Chapter 108, takes effect July 1. Tennesseans ages 21 and older will no longer be required to undergo state criminal background checks, firearm training or demonstrate firearm competency, which they must do now under the state's existing permit-carry process.

But the law maintains the current permitting process. And both bill proponents, gun shops and firearms trainers caution gun owners may want to continue getting or renewing their permits. Among other things, Tennesseans with no permits run a legal risk if they go armed in most other states.

The legislation had the support of the National Rifle Association. Some gun-rights advocates, including the Tennessee Firearms Association, charged it didn't go far enough. Several law enforcement groups opposed the law.

In April, the pro-gun rights group Firearms Policy Coalition, of California, filed suit challenging the law in U.S. District Court in Knoxville. The group says the legislation unlawfully discriminates against residents ages 18 to 20, barring them from carrying a firearm unless they serve or have served in the military and were honorably discharged.

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

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