Despite opposition from law enforcement officials, permitless weapon legislation gained momentum in the General Assembly last week, although lawmakers might have to pick Gov. Bill Lee's bill over one considered to be true "constitutional carry."
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of the governor's bill on a 7-2 vote Tuesday, followed by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. The latter passed the governor's bill and another sponsored by Rep. Bruce Griffey, which would allow anyone over 18 who can legally carry a firearm to do so without a state permit.
The Senate version goes next to the Finance, Ways and Means Committee, and the House version heads to the full Criminal Justice Committee.
Tennessee handgun permits, in effect since 1996, cost a total of $165 and require licensed training plus a background check. The state has more than 716,000 permit holders.
"If we pass permitless carry, it will certainly make those who choose to carry and not get a permit more safe. They will have the ability to defend [their] lives against somebody if they're filling up on gas and somebody pulls up and tries to rob 'em or carjack 'em," said Griffey, a Paris Republican and attorney.
Griffey contended he sees cases weekly in Memphis and Chicago where people are accosted by someone with a gun and said he doesn't believe the Legislature should "hamstring" law-abiding residents who want to be able to protect themselves.
Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat, questioned Griffey's bill, asking him if he knew Mississippi, which allows permitless carry, has the highest rate of firearm fatalities in the nation. Griffey responded that Beck was conflating the statistics.
Griffey also said he didn't know how the legislative process would play out when asked whether his bill would advance ahead of the governor's permitless carry legislation.
Either way, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, said he didn't understand how Griffey's measure would make communities safer, especially when law enforcement officers have to use "reasonable suspicion" or "probable cause" to figure who's carrying guns.
"I'm sure the criminals are probably waiting to walk around with a weapon because they can't be challenged unless there's probable cause or suspicion," Hardaway said Wednesday morning.
Griffey's bill passed on a party-line 6-2 vote with Republicans supporting and Beck and Hardaway opposing.
The governor's bill, which is being carried by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, rolled through the subcommittee on a voice vote. The Portland Republican fended off questions from Beck, who pointed out law enforcement officials oppose the bill because of the difficulty it could pose for officers in determining whether someone is mentally incompetent and shouldn't be carrying a handgun.
Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat, questioned Griffey's bill, asking him if he knew Mississippi, which allows permitless carry, has the highest rate of firearm fatalities in the nation.
Beck argued that a permit is "prima facie" evidence that someone is legally carrying a weapon. If someone is mentally defective, they wouldn't be able to get that permit in the first place, and if they've been ruled by the courts to be incompetent, the permit would be revoked, he said.
Lamberth disagreed, saying the state's system doesn't necessarily provide officers with that information when they run a check on someone. He contended law enforcement officers should never depend on a permit to determine whether someone is carrying legally.
Under the state's permit process, Lamberth said he believes individuals are giving up constitutional rights to bear arms and against unreasonable search and seizure.
"Under our current process, it is certainly a violation of your Second Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights," Lamberth said.
Dickson County Sheriff Jeff Bledsoe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association, testified against the governor's bills in both committees, saying it could put officers in danger.
Bledsoe said afterward law enforcement officers will continue handling calls the same way, but he pointed out the permit is a "safety net" to allow officers to know whether people qualify to carry weapons. State and federal laws both hold exemptions to the Second Amendment, mainly for convicted felons, mental defectives and illegal immigrants.
"Our concern is we won't have that mechanism anymore to know if you're on that felony offender (list) or you've been declared mentally incompetent or with a disability diagnosis that goes to TBI and they know that when you're trying to buy a handgun or trying to get a permit," Bledsoe said.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which opposes both bills, some 5,500 people were excluded from permits in 2020 or revoked for being ineligible.
The state has 63,000 mentally defective people, said TBI spokesman Jimmy Musice, who noted that status is checked at two points, when someone buys a weapon from a federally-licensed gun deal or gets a handgun permit.
"Unfortunately, a patrol officer will not be able to verify whether a person is in one of those databases," if the bill passes, Musice said in testimony.
The governor's bill was amended in the Senate and House committees to ensure a person must be 21 to carry without a permit unless the person is 18 and honorably discharged or retired from the armed forces. The bill also would allow those on active duty or members of the National Guard or reserves to carry without a permit.
The governor's bill comes with increased penalties for those who violate gun laws, plus a $2.6 million price tag.
Anyone convicted of stalking who carries a gun would face a Class B misdemeanor, as would anyone convicted of two DUIs in 10 years and in DUI in the last five years, along with anyone adjudicated as mentally defective and those otherwise prohibited from carrying a firearm.
The bill also increases penalties and sentencing for those convicted of stealing guns from cars or using them to commit other offenses.
Moms Demand Action leaders testified against the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying an increase in the number of people carrying guns would lead to "mistakes" and more deaths.
"It's about the money, a great deal of it for the gun manufacturers and gun lobby," said Linda McFadyen-Ketchum, spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action.
However, John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, said permits stop people who need protection from being able to carry, including minority residents and possibly women who are victims of domestic violence.
Thirty-one states already have some form of permitless carry. Tennesseans don't have to be permitted to store guns in their cars.
"Not a single one of these states has seen fit to reverse this law," Lott said during testimony. He added that none of the "dire predictions" about permitless carry have come true in other states,
Instead, violent crime rates dropped after five years in states that adopted permitless carry, according to Lott.