The Tennessee General Assembly has passed a law that would remove gun permit requirements for most Tennesseans — a change widely opposed by law enforcement.
The legislation, which passed in the state Senate on March 18 and passed the Tennessee House of Representatives Monday night, is part of Gov. Bill Lee’s public safety agenda and, once signed, would go into effect July 1.
The law, which is known in some states as “constitutional carry,” would allow anyone over the age of 21 to carry a handgun — open or concealed — without having to first obtain a carry permit. The bill does restrict anyone convicted of stalking from carrying a firearm, as well as anyone who has been convicted of DUI two or more times in 10 years – or once within five years – and anyone who has been committed to a mental institution through the courts. Additionally, the bill increases the penalties for anyone convicted of stealing a gun, making the crime a minimum class E felony with a minimum six-month jail sentence.
For the Lee administration, the bill is designed to protect Second Amendment rights while improving safety by increasing the penalties for gun theft. For Bill Gibbons — executive director at the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis and former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security — the legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly could have dire consequences for Memphis, which saw 332 homicides in 2020.
“Memphis is facing a gun violence epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gibbons said while speaking in a personal capacity and not directly for the Public Safety Institute. “We have a very serious challenge with too many guns in the wrong hands at the wrong times in Memphis. Now, do we really want to gut our handgun permit system and allow people with no training and no background check to be able to carry handguns in public?”
The permits — which can typically be obtained currently in Tennessee with an 8-hour course usually broken into two classes — require the gun owner to demonstrate competency in areas of handgun function, safety and proper storage. For Donald Gregory — a former reserve deputy with the Shelby County Sheriff’s office and current reserve police officer with the Memphis Police Department, who currently works as a handgun instructor at USA Training Academy in Bartlett — the permit process is necessary to ensure that gun owners develop safe habits.
“I’m pro Second Amendment,” Gregory said, “and I have no concerns with citizens carrying a firearm, but only if they are properly trained. I teach the classes, and I personally observe people who know nothing about guns, and now we are talking about allowing people to strap a gun to their hip without the training the state once required. I have more concern, especially when you consider the high crime rate in Memphis.”
Recent state legislative votes on the issue of gun permits have typically fallen on party lines with Republicans mostly supporting limited requirements on gun owners and Democrats calling for stricter gun laws. However, during Monday’s vote on the House floor, two Shelby County Republicans voted against the bill. State Rep. John Gillespie (R-Memphis) and State Rep. Mark White, (R-Germantown) both voted against the bill, underscoring the concern that these measures could affect Memphis directly in comparison to the rest of the state. During a committee meeting earlier this month, Gillespie said that the measure has received overwhelming condemnation from law enforcement, therefore causing him to oppose it.
Kevin Langellier, captain in the UofM police services, is among the law enforcement officials who oppose the recent legislation.
“We oppose this bill as written,” Langellier said. “For the safety of our officers, we feel like this is moving to a less safe situation. There will be more people potentially who will have more guns moving around on the streets. There are sections of the state where this will be less of a problem, but there are sections where this will be a considerable problem.”
“I’m not going to question the motives of anybody who is for this proposal,” Gibbons said, “but I think it’s a great example of unintended consequences. I don’t think they realize the consequences of passing this for a city such as Memphis.”