The “constitutional carry” or permitless gun carry legislation put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is rising again in the Tennessee Legislature, likely to set off a stirring debate as the session starts Feb. 8.
Rep. Bruce Griffey, a Paris Republican, is sponsoring House Bill 18, which would exempt people from obtaining a state concealed-carry permit if they legally possess a firearm and are not prohibited from purchasing a firearm in Tennessee.
The legislation, which is carried in the Senate by Sen. Joey Hensley, a Hohenwald Republican, is different from the bill Gov. Bill Lee brought in 2020 and could revive this year. Griffey could not be reached Monday for comment.
The governor’s legislation, dubbed “constitutional carry”, would allow people to carry a handgun without a permit as long as they are legally allowed by state law. But the governor’s bill also created a new set of penalties for those who use weapons to commit crimes.
Lee announced his permitless carry bill in 2020 amid flagging support for other initiatives but put it on hold when the novel coronavirus struck the state. The governor said last year he expected “constitutional carry” to come back up when the Legislature was not preoccupied with the pandemic.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who carried the governor’s legislative package, said he hasn’t gotten a “definitive answer” on the permit-less carry bill.
“I think there are still conversations going on with the administration,” said Johnson, a Franklin Republican. “I think it needs to come from him if he’s going to do that.”
Even though COVID-19 remains a serious problem across the state, with vaccinations reaching only a small percentage of the population so far, Johnson predicted the session, from the standpoint of legislative members, would “look very much like a normal session.”
A House Republican Caucus spokesman referred questions about permit-less carry to the Governor’s Office. And a spokesman for Gov. Lee did not respond to questions Monday.
But House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison said, “There’s definitely talks about it.”
The Cosby Republican from the Smoky Mountains said he would “absolutely” support the measure, calling it a “great bill.”
“It really heightened the penalties for people who illegally carry a gun,” Faison said.
The bill-filing deadline for the Senate is Feb. 11, and the House deadline will follow Feb. 17.
Johnson and House Majority Leader William Lamberth could carry a broadly-worded bill on firearms and ammunition, enabling the governor to attach “constitutional carry” legislation later in the session. Lamberth said recently he would let the governor announce any plans to bring such a bill.
Nearly 595,000 Tennesseans held concealed-carry permits four years ago.
“The constitutional carry bill has been an important bill, specifically for the House for many years, and it is my hope definitely that we will pass that bill this coming session,” said Lamberth, a Portland Republican. “Any time you can expand freedom to protect people’s individual liberties, it’s a good day in Tennessee. I know it will definitely be something we will be focused on.”
House Speaker Cameron Sexton agreed that House Republicans were happy with the “constitutional carry” bill in 2020 when it enhanced penalties for those who possess guns illegally.
“I think it’s a two-way street. We want people to be able to carry who should be able to carry. But those who shouldn’t carry, there should be a tough sentence and a punishment for them, and hopefully that bill will remain where it was last year,” Sexton, a Crossville Republican, said in a recent interview.
Last year’s legislation would have increased penalties for people who steal guns and violent felons who illegally possess handguns.
Some law enforcement officials say gun theft has gone up dramatically since the Legislature adopted the “guns in trunks” bill in 2015, enabling people to keep guns in their vehicles while parked on private property, including businesses’ property.
Despite those measures to further punish illegal gun carry, the bill will draw opposition from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and possibly from law enforcement, too.
Moms Demand Action will argue against the measure using a 2019 poll by Survey USA for Everytown for Gun Safety showing 93% of voters support requiring a permit to carry a loaded handgun in public, including 92% of Republicans and 91% of gun-owning households, according to spokesperson Leeann Hewlett.
The same poll found 65% of recent Tennessee voters would be less likely to vote for Gov. Lee if he signs legislation eliminating the requirement to get a handgun permit.
“We’re committed to fighting back against dangerous permit-less carry bills like House Bill 18, which would allow people to carry loaded, hidden guns in public without a background check or any safety training,” Hewlett said, contending the state’s permit systems helps bolster gun safety.
- 65% of recent Tennessee voters would be less likely to vote for Gov. Bill Lee if he eliminates the requirement to get a handgun permit.
- 93% of voters support requiring a permit to carry a loaded handgun in public, including 92% of Republicans.
- The survey interviewed nearly 1,000 voters statewide.
Studies show states that have weakened their handgun permitting laws have seen a 13-15% increase in the violent crime rate and an 11% increase in handgun homicide rates, according Hewlett.
People would be able to carry handguns without a permit in areas where children play, including parks, nature trails, campgrounds, “and that’s just not something that makes common sense,” she added.
Memphis Police Chief Michael Rallings opposed the bill in 2020, noted 88% of the city’s crimes involved a firearm and said passing such legislation would send the wrong message at a time the city reported 11 interstate shootings. He predicted such a move would increase violent crime in Memphis.
Jerri Green, a Democratic House candidate from East Memphis in 2020, pointed out Republicans were pushing the measure when the National Rifle Association was scheduled to hold its convention in Nashville before the pandemic struck. She predicted the governor would push the permitless carry bill again.
A three-time gun violence survivor and mother of three children, Green said she believes in a “strong” Second Amendment but contended “responsibility” comes with the right to carry weapons. She compared the state permit process to getting a license to drive a vehicle, which could be a deadly weapon, saying training is a necessity for responsible gun ownership.
“I don’t like the idea of taking my daughter to play soccer or going to shop for groceries and not knowing who has a gun and if they’ve had any training,” said Green, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action.
Even those who handle guns daily, including gun range owners, favor the state’s permitting process to train those who plan to carry firearms, she pointed out.
The Legislature passed a measure in 2019 creating an “enhanced handgun carry permit,” similar to the state permitting process already in place, and adopting a regular handgun permit in which training can be taken online or in person.
Enhanced permits cost $100, and regular permits cost $65 and are good for eight years, with a $50 renewal fee.
In addition to Griffey’s permit-less carry bill, freshman Rep. Todd Warner is sponsoring HB446, which would prohibit the expenditure of state or local funds or use of employees to set up, regulate or enforce any federal law or executive order regulating the sale of firearms, ammunition or firearm accessories if those steps would violate state law of the Tennessee Constitution.
Warner is the subject of an FBI investigation linked to possible illegal coordination of his state campaign and outside expenditures.