Flanked by legislative leaders, Gov. Bill Lee signs – for the second time -a law permitting permitless gun carry at a Middle Tennessee Beretta factory in June 2021. (Photo: Sam Stockard)
Nearly two months after signing his permitless carry bill, Gov. Bill Lee inked the document again, this time during a ceremony at the Beretta USA Tennessee gun factory in Gallatin.
The Governor’s office touted the event as a constitutional carry bill signing, even though gun advocates criticized the legislation as falling short of true constitutional carry during the latest legislation session. He initially signed the measure in early April, just days after it passed the General Assembly along party lines in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
“Today is a day that signals a win for law-abiding citizens in Tennessee. It also signals a win for preserving the Second Amendment in our state,” Lee said as Beretta management and plant workers gathered inside the immaculate Sumner County plant to watch.
The governor noted that law-abiding residents, starting July 1, will be able to carry weapons without what he termed “unnecessary permission” from the state.
The new law enables residents 21 and over who are legally eligible to be armed to carry handguns without going through training or a background check needed to obtain a state carry permit. A person also must be lawfully present in a place to carry the weapon, thus it would not apply to public parks and private businesses where weapons are not allowed.
The law also contains exceptions for those over 18 who are honorably discharged from the military, as well as those who are on active military duty.
Because of those types of rules, hardcore gun rights activists contended Lee’s legislation wasn’t a real constitutional carry measure. Some lawmakers tried to pass legislation allowing anyone over 18, except convicted felons, to carry guns, but those bills died during the session.
Lee said after the Wednesday ceremony he doesn’t plan to introduce a bill in 2022 to lower the age to 18 but added he would review such a measure.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally shied away Wednesday from saying he would back lowering the age to 18 next year for non-military residents.
Lawmakers such as House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who spoke during the ceremony, have said the passage of Lee’s legislation is only the beginning of efforts to broaden the right to carry guns in the state.
McNally, nevertheless, said during Wednesday’s ceremony he wanted to “make it crystal clear” that the law is a constitutional carry provision. He noted afterward this type of legislation would always draw criticism but pointed out it has provisions to keep stalkers and DUI offenders from carrying guns.
“It certainly reinforces the Second Amendment to the Constitution and then it provides for the safety of citizens to carry legally,” McNally said.
Prohibitions are placed on those convicted of stalking, driving under the influence twice or more in the past 10 years or once in the past five years, people found to be mentally defective and those otherwise not allowed to possess a firearm.
The measure also enacts harsher punishments for people who steal handguns, including mandatory jail time, and violent felons who commit crimes with guns, as well as for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felony drug offender and illegally providing a gun to a juvenile.
The law is expected to cut state revenue by $2.4 million annually in the handgun permit division and by nearly $595,000 for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation while increasing state expenses by $12.3 million annually for extra incarceration costs.
Lawmakers passed the bill after hearing support from the National Rifle Association and as Republican legislators backed what they called inherent rights to carry a weapon under the Second Amendment. Lee made note of the NRA’s support during the event as a representative sat in the audience.
Groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety Moms Demand Action and the Tennessee Sheriffs Association and Tennessee Chiefs of Police Association opposed the bill from the outset. Law enforcement officials said passage would put their officers at risk by making it more difficult to determine whether someone they stop is carrying a weapon.
Why is this bill so important to the governor? What message is he trying to send? None of our law enforcement officers in any law enforcement agency, period . . . were in favor of this bill.
– Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair, House Democratic Caucus
Moms Demand Action representatives fought the bill at every turn, wearing their red T-shirts to committee meetings, but often found themselves rebuffed. They questioned the need for the governor to hold a ceremonial signing.
“Maybe instead of wasting taxpayer dollars and all of our time taking a second victory lap over a bill that will make Tennessee less safe for us all, including law enforcement, Gov. Lee should be tackling the gun violence epidemic that continues to devastate Tennessee,” said Leeann Hewlett, a volunteer leader with the Tennessee chapter of Moms Demand Action.
The governor said after Wednesday’s event that gun safety would be a priority for the state, and he noted $500,000 was placed in the budget to address it.
State Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday that passage of the legislation is difficult to understand.
“Why is this bill so important to the governor? What message is he trying to send? None of our law enforcement officers in any law enforcement agency, period … were in favor of this bill,” Dixie said. “All of them said it’s going to make their job inherently more dangerous.”
Yet Dixie contended the governor continues to promote the permitless carry bill even though it will only increase the number of deadly shootings in the state. He pointed out even police who go through intensive training can make the wrong decision with weapons.
Under this law, people can bypass basics taught in handgun training courses previously required to obtain a permit but hold the same responsibility as police officers in carrying a handgun, he said.
“It just makes no sense. It’s asinine,” Dixie said.
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