When Tennessee lawmakers pushed last summer to increase penalties against demonstrators demanding police reform, they did so in the name of supporting law enforcement. But when police advocacy groups asked them not to remove background checks and training requirements for most people seeking to carry a handgun, Republicans in charge at the Capitol were decidedly less responsive.
Support for the permitless carry bill this year reflects an uncomfortable tension between GOP leaders' tendency to heap praise on law enforcement while ignoring those same officials' criticism of legislation that would remove the last vestige of permitting requirements for most gun owners.
The Tennessee debate is playing out as national leaders call for increasing gun regulation in the aftermath of two mass shootings. President Joe Biden has called on Congress to act, and his fellow Democrats have said they’re pushing toward measures that would do the opposite of the Tennessee measure — expand background checks. But Congress hasn’t passed any major gun regulations since the mid-1990s, leaving most significant gun legislation in states’ hands, where new laws tend to lean in favor of expanding rights.
Tennessee police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors have defended the state's existing gun permit system, arguing it's essential in determining who can carry firearms legally and weeding out those who should not. They warn that removing such requirements could make it more dangerous for officers and communities.
“Our lawmakers keep trumpeting their support for law enforcement, but for those who voted for this dangerous permitless carry bill, it’s clear that those are empty words,” said Linda McFadyen-Ketchum, a volunteer with the Tennessee chapter of Moms Demand Action, which advocates for gun safety.
“Every major law enforcement agency in Tennessee — along with business leaders, medical professionals, faith leaders, and more — opposes this bill, and we’ll stand with them as we fight to make sure the bill never becomes law," she added.
Law enforcement organizations opposed to the current legislation, dubbed “constitutional carry” by its proponents, include the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association and the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police.
“Since 1996, almost 25 years of successful implementation, the existing permit process has served our citizens well,” the sheriffs' group recently wrote in a letter to House lawmakers. “The handgun carry permit process provides a method and procedure that allows confirmation and verification of lawful handgun carry.”
While testifying against the bill, TBI Senior Policy Adviser Jimmy Musice told lawmakers that Tennessee's handgun permit system helped prevent roughly 5,500 people from carrying a weapon because it flagged them as ineligible.
“We don’t have any issue, and support the underlying policy that those that are legally permissible to carry possess a firearm and defend themselves,” Musice said. “The permit process allows us to actually do that by knowing if that person truly is lawful.”
Those concerns, however, have been downplayed or ignored by Gov. Bill Lee and Republican lawmakers.
Lawmakers backing the measure contend such risks are acceptable in the name of strengthening the rights to bear arms guaranteed under the Second Amendment. They note that the bill would increase certain gun-related penalties, which they say would improve safety by harshly punishing those who were already going to ignore the law.
Asked Monday whether recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado gave him any concern about timing, Lee said the increased penalties mean that “we in fact will be strengthening laws that would help prevent gun crimes in the future.”
Others point out that law enforcement groups have opposed loosening gun permit restrictions for years.
“We love and respect our law enforcement officers, but there’s been very few bills that have recognized the rights of citizens of this state to carry that law enforcement has not opposed almost unanimously,” said GOP state Sen. Mike Bell, the bill’s sponsor.
The quiet sidestepping of law enforcement's concerns stands in sharp contrast to remarks many Republicans made last year as hundreds of thousands across the state and U.S. gathered to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Tennessee lawmakers not only decried those who demanded defunding or reducing spending on police departments, but went on the offensive to punish protesters who had been camping outside the Capitol for police reform. When the General Assembly gathered for a special legislative session last August, GOP members framed the targeting of protesters as a clear choice.
“You can support our law enforcement officers or you can spit in their face by voting against this,” Republican Majority Leader William Lamberth said at the time.
Lee signed that bill into law.
This year, the Republican governor has made the permitless bill a top priority. The bill is currently headed to his desk, where he's expected to sign it soon. The push comes after Lee signed legislation in 2019 that relaxed the state’s handgun law by allowing people to obtain a concealed-carry-only permit that doesn't require them to demonstrate the ability to fire a weapon.
When asked about law enforcement opposing the bill earlier this year, Lee described that feedback as “important."
“You can protect the Second Amendment and you can protect the citizens of our state at the same time,” Lee told reporters.
Under this year's bill, adults 21 and older and military members between 18 and 20 would be allowed to open or concealed carry handguns without a permit. The bill, if enacted, would increase certain penalties. For example, theft of a firearm — now a misdemeanor that carries a 30-day sentence — would become a felony with a mandatory six month incarceration. It also makes exceptions for people with certain mental illnesses and criminal convictions.
Nationwide, at least six states are also weighing similar measures this year, with supporters eager to join nearly 20 others that currently don’t require permits for concealed carry, while more than 30 states allow permitless open carry.
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