NASHVILLE — Legislation backed by Gov. Bill Lee that will allow Tennesseans to carry a handgun without a permit appears to be headed for final passage, after clearing the Senate on Thursday.
State senators voted 23-9 to approve Senate Bill 765 on final consideration. The vote came nine days after the bill cleared its final committee vote, in the Finance, Ways & Means Committee.
The legislation would remove requirements for persons to undergo training and apply for a permit to carry a handgun in Tennessee. Permitless carry is already legal in more than a dozen other states.
Thursday’s final vote approved the Senate bill with an amendment attached that prohibits handgun carry by anyone who has been convicted of stalking, or by anyone convicted of a DUI within the past five years, or two DUIs within the past 10 years.
Under terms of the legislation, persons must be at least 21 years of age to carry a handgun, or at least 18 and a member of the military or honorably discharged from the military. The legislation does not change which persons are prohibited from carrying a handgun; it merely removes the training and permit process.
The legislation also heightens penalties for people who are prohibited from carrying a handgun and are found to be in possession for one. The bill also increases the punishment for theft of a firearm from a misdemeanor to a felony that requires at least six months in jail.
The legislation is opposed by many law enforcement organizations, including the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association.
However, the legislation has been a priority of Gov. Lee’s for the past two years. The state’s conference of district attorneys was neutral on the bill.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, took the Senate floor before Thursday’s vote to say that the legislation is opposed by “a vast majority of the state.” His motion to table the bill failed by a 23-8 vote.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said that while the focus had been on the first part of the bill allowing permitless carry, the second part of the bill, increasing penalties for stealing or unlawfully possessing handguns, is equally important.
“Regardless of the purpose, regardless of the value of the gun, if you steal a gun you will spend six months in jail. Period,” said Bell, who also pointed out that the bill enhances penalties for persons convicted of providing guns to juveniles.
Bell, who co-sponsored the bill, also pointed out that law enforcement agencies routinely oppose gun rights bills in Tennessee. In 1995, when the current carry permit system was established by the legislation, “every law enforcement organization” in the state opposed it, Bell said.
Prior to 1995, county sheriffs determined whether permits to carry handguns were approved. “It was political patronage at its best,” Bell said.
“A person should be able to carry a handgun without permission from the state,” Bell said.
The bill has not come without controversy. In response to a question about whether law enforcement officers who see someone carrying a handgun will know whether that person is carrying unlawfully, Bell said bluntly that they would not, “But that’s what comes with freedom.”
“If you don’t have gun safety training and you refuse a background check and get to go armed in public, that puts citizens at risk,” said Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis. “When we have more untrained people, more accidental shootings will happen,” she added.
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, cited a poll that she said showed 83% of Tennesseans oppose the legislation.
Before the bill can head to the governor’s desk, it must first pass the House of Representatives and any differences between the legislation passed by the two chambers must be ironed out. However, the legislation is expected to pass the House, where Republicans have a 73-26 advantage.
In the Senate, the bill passed largely along party lines, with all six Democrats voting against the legislation. Three Republicans also voted no: Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville; Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; and Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville.