Life would be simpler if laws were as open and shut as their supporters and detractors make them out to be.
But they rarely are.
The permitless, or constitutional, carry bill on the desk of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee for his signature is one of those. It won't usher in the return of the wild, wild west that its detractors say it will. But neither is it likely to be a significant difference maker for those who are targeted by criminals.
The handgun bill, which already had passed the state Senate, passed the state House Monday. And since Lee told us earlier this month that he proposed the bill, we expect him to sign it.
His arguments are those frequently cited by supporters:
- The bill doesn't change who can carry a gun. If you could not qualify to own one before, you cannot qualify now.
To purchase a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer, you must pass a criminal history background check conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and administered by the licensed dealer at the time of the handgun purchase. At such time, the dealer must register your personal information as well as the make, model, caliber and manufacturer's number of the weapon.
- The bill doesn't change where you can carry a gun. Where it was illegal to have a gun before — say on school property, where a judicial proceeding is being held, at an airport or on a military installation — it is still illegal now.
What has changed, assuming the bill becomes law as expected on July 1, is that Tennesseans who carry a gun will no longer have to have a permit to carry their gun. And they'll be able to carry it openly or concealed.
Current law allows permit holders who have taken an eight-hour live training course to carry openly or concealed. Permit holders who choose only to watch a 90-minute training video can only carry their gun concealed.
With the new law, any training, unless gun owners take it upon themselves to do it, would be gone. That is concerning.
We're under no illusion that a 90-minute video or even an eight-hour live course gives gun owners FBI Academy-level training, but we figure everybody is likely to pick up some rudimentary principles of gun safety or gun laws in either training.
But with those gone, we worry more gun-related, hold-my-beer moments — "Hey, watch this!" — are liable to crop up. And that makes the potential for injury or worse also go up.
With that in mind, an amendment to the law requiring at least the 90-minute video training with the purchase of a gun might be in order.
We also have a concern that the law will embolden more gun owners to carry their firearms openly, where before owners were distinguished by either open or concealed permits. And where there are more guns, there is often more gun violence, accidental or intended.
On the other hand, we're also aware that the vast majority of gun crimes are not perpetrated by people who have 1) bought their gun at a licensed firearms dealer, 2) passed a background check in order to buy the gun, or 3) sought a permit to carry their gun either openly or concealed.
Tennessee would become the 19th state to adopt a constitutional, or permitless, carry law. Montana and Utah also have joined the growing list of states to do so in 2021.
The reason many people refer to it as a constitutional carry law is that it was the law in every state from the time the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, and the original 13 states were formed, until well into the 19th century.
By 1900, most states had either banned concealed carry or required a permit. From that time until the 2000s, Vermont stood virtually alone with the law.
Then, with the landmark 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case, the Supreme Court found that self-defense was a "central component of the Second Amendment," and with a 2010 case determined there were limits on states and local governments in passing laws that restrict the "individual" and "fundamental" right to "keep and bear arms" for self-defense.
That unleashed a torrent of states adopting the law, and now laws similar to Tennessee's are pending in several other states.
Since the recent history of gun crime in permitless, or constitutional, carry states is relatively short, all manner of opinion is available as to whether the new law helps or hurts. A look at gun crimes by state doesn't help, either. Some permitless carry states have high gun crime rates, and some do not.
Tennessee legislators say the same thing about law enforcement officers. Some support it, and some do not.
Since more guns are likely to be in the public and much less training will occur, we feel there is more of a potential for a downside than an upside. But it's possible the future will prove us wrong. We hope so.