Tennessee Governor Signs Bill Allowing Permitless Carry of Handguns for Law-Abiding Residents

April 9, 2021 Updated: April 9, 2021

Tennessee has officially joined 19 other states to allow permitless carry of handguns by law-abiding residents, meaning that law-abiding adults in the state are allowed to carry a handgun without a permit.

Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday signed into law the measure that would allow residents 21 and older, or members of the military aged 18 to 20, to carry handguns openly or concealed without a permit, except in areas already restricted under existing laws. Permitless carry will also not apply to long guns, a point of contention for gun activists.

“I signed constitutional carry today because it shouldn’t be hard for law-abiding Tennesseans to exercise their #2A rights. Thank you members of the General Assembly and @NRA for helping get this done,” Lee said in a statement on Thursday.

The Tennessee legislature passed the measure in late March with the backing of the National Rifle Association but with opposition from some state law enforcement groups, who said they’re worried how the law could impact public safety.

The law, which will go into effect on July 1, also increases penalties for certain gun crimes, including theft of a firearm, which will be increased from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The measure does not repeal the existing provision that makes it an offense to carry any firearm with the intent to go armed. Instead, the bill creates an exception to the crime if the person meets the requirements for an enhanced handgun carry permit, lawfully possesses a handgun, and is in a place that the person has a right to be.

Individuals will still have to follow federal law, which include background checks for purchasing guns from licensed sellers. No background checks are required for private sales in the state, although it is illegal to sell a firearm to a person “with knowledge that the prospective purchaser is prohibited by state or federal law from owning, possessing or purchasing a firearm.”

An analysis of the bill by the Tennessee Firearms Association (TFA), a not-for-profit organization to advocate for the Second Amendment, characterized Lee’s bill as not being a “true constitutional carry,” where anyone who can legally possess a firearm can carry it.

“Governor’s new law is a form of permitless carry,” John Harris from the TFA wrote.

“True constitutional carry would recognize the full scope of the right that is protected by the 2nd Amendment and it would eliminate state and local infringements on that right. That is not what this bill does.”

During a session of the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee in March, one of the legislators, Sen. Senator Kerry Roberts (R), said that even if the bill passes, there still needs to be more work done on the topic to make it easier for law-abiding citizens to obtain a gun to protect themselves and their loved ones from criminals.

“Is this bill Constitutional Carry? Well, for many Tennesseans, they view it as exactly that … I don’t believe its a true constitutional carry bill,” Roberts said at the time. “If this bill passes out committee, I simply want to say to the Legislators that our work is not done on this bill. Our work is not done on this topic.”

Meanwhile, members of law enforcement have criticized the law.

“I think permitless carry is bad for Memphis. I don’t see how it is such a great thing for the state of Tennessee when the state of Tennessee leads the nation in violence, one of the top three in violence, especially violence against children,” Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings told Fox13 in opposing the bill.

“We’ve seen what happened with extending [carrying guns from] the house to the car, because we saw an explosion of guns being stolen from cars,” he stated.

Earlier this month, Iowa enacted a similar bill, lifting some restrictions on the purchase or carrying of a handgun in the state for law-abiding citizens.

Jack Phillips contributed to this report.

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