Governor Bill Lee announced his support for permitless gun carry legislation in Tennessee Thursday, while also announcing possible increases in penalties for illegal gun possession and thefts.
Surrounded by Republican lawmakers inside the Old Supreme Court chamber at the state Capitol—a building the prohibits guns—Lee announced his support for the bill that takes a sharp turn from his predecessor’s position on the matter.
“The Second Amendment’s clear and concise and secures the uninfringed right of law abiding citizens to keep and bear arms,” Lee said. “Today, I’m announcing that we will be joining 16 other states in this nation by introducing a constitutional carry law in the state of Tennessee.”
The legislation would allow both open and concealed carrying of handguns for Tennessee residents 21 and older, as well as allow permitless carry to military members who are 18 to 20 years old.
The Second Amendment is clear and concise in securing the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. Today, we're taking steps to protect the rights of Tennesseans, while also stiffening penalties on criminals and keeping our communities safe. https://t.co/Y30RxJVcq1
— Governor Bill Lee (@GovBillLee) February 27, 2020
Copies of the legislation were not provided to reporters as of Thursday.
Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, who presides over the House finance committee, said cost estimates would likely exceed $20 million, but those details are still being finalized by the Legislature’s fiscal review.
The governor also detailed his support for the increase in penalties, making theft of a firearm a felony instead of a misdemeanor in Tennessee, as well as mandating a six-month incarceration sentence instead of its current 30-day requirement. Sentencing will be enhanced when the gun is stolen from a car, when a gun is given to a juvenile, or is possessed by a felon or individuals with orders of protections/domestic violence convictions against them.
Tennesseans who wish to purchase handguns will still have to pass the federal background checks, unless the gun is purchased through a private sale, a website or a gun show.
Exceptions to the policy will still allow private property owners and businesses to ban weapons from their premises, as long as signs are posted.
Outdoor public spaces, schools, courts and government facilities are still restricted as well.
District attorneys in both Nashville and Memphis decried the plan on Thursday.
Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, who ran as a Republican, released a statement saying that “Allowing permitless open carry of firearms in a large urban area makes no sense…Is it really asking too much for someone to get a permit to carry a deadly weapon on our streets?”
Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk also condemned the legislation.
“Encouraging Tennesseans to arm themselves in public, without even requiring gun safety classes will result in a more dangerous environment for Tennessee families,” said Funk, in a statement with the Tennessean. “Carrying a gun must come with responsibility.”
Democratic lawmakers and gun safety activists alike condemned the proposal.
“The governor proposes to endanger every child, every law enforcement officer in Tennessee for no other reason than to score political points with his most right-wing administration,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville.
Stewart also stated that permitless carry was “the worst” idea Lee had backed since taking over the executive office last year.
Additionally, the Moms Demand Action group, which advocates gun reform legislation, released a statement, saying that “It’s common sense that if you’re going to carry a concealed gun in public, you should pass a background check and make sure you know how to handle it.”
A switch in position
This is not the first time that permitless carry legislation has been proposed in Tennessee, although it has been previously defeated by top law enforcement officials and Republicans alike.
In an interview with WPLN in October 2017, Lee was questioned about whether Tennesseans should be able to carry a handgun without a permit.
“I don’t,” he said. “Primarily because I’m a guy who’s listening to law enforcement and what they believe, and law enforcement is very much against that.”
Today, Lee defended his change in perspective, saying he was still listening to law enforcement.
“That’s the reason, with the rights given to law abiding citizens, we combined increased penalties for those who break the law,” he said.
(A poll taken in 2017 showed that 93 percent of Tennesseans—including 93 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of carry permit holders and 88 percent of gun owners—support the state’s current permit requirements. )
The legislation follows a continuing pattern of looser gun restrictions in Tennessee: In January, a bill was passed that allows Tennessee residents to obtain carry permits via online courses.
The new online permit can be obtained after online training of at least 90 minutes, while the previous handgun carry permits, now known as “enhanced handgun carry permits,” required eight hours of in-person training and required live-fire testing, something that supporters of the new bill say was too time consuming.
While debating the bill during the 2019 legislative session, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro said he was able to skip all of the online training course’s videos and “obtain” his permit while the legislative committee he was sitting in advanced the bill.
The legislative arm of the National Rifle Association backed the bill, although the Tennessee Firearm Association did not, referencing possible conflict with other states’ laws, and the fact that this law could get in the way of their ultimate goal of permitless carry.
Also proposed in January was a bill that, if passed, will allow college students to carry concealed handguns on public university campuses.
The controversial HB2102 and SB2288 were proposed Representative Rush Bricken (R—Tullahoma) and Senator Janice Bowling (R—Tullahoma).
In March of 2018, a bill that would lessen the penalty for permitless gun carry was passed in the state House of Representatives, changing the original law— making permitless gun carry a Class C misdemeanor punishable with a $500 fine and possible imprisonment—to only a fine of $250 on the first offense. An amendment was proposed to also ban officers from confiscating guns, but was later changed to only ban officers from confiscating the ammunition from an offender.
The amended bill was sponsored by Rep. Micah Van Huss, a Republican from Jonesborough. Sidelines recently reported on his proposal to label CNN and The Washington Post as fake news.
Watch Lee’s full announcement here:
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