Tennessee’s new permitless handgun law set to take effect in July has raised objections and concerns from law enforcement professionals across the state, including from some in Williamson County.
The incoming law will allow adults 21 and older as well as military members between 18 and 20 to open or concealed carry handguns on their person without a permit, which is currently required by state law.
The move was pitched as a true example of a state protecting and promoting the Second Amendment, which in full reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law on April 8, a day before President Biden announced new executive orders on firearms.
“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 tweeted.
Last year the state introduced online handgun permit classes, which allowed residents to pay a smaller fee and obtain a permit without any in-person training. This happened at the same time that gun sales spiked across the nation.
On Feb. 25, the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association released an open letter to the Tennessee House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, who was at that time reviewing the bill.
"We have no option but to oppose the bill as drafted," the letter reads. "If the cost of obtaining a permit is viewed as a barrier, simply eliminate the fee. The safety of our officers and every Tennessean is the reason we go to work everyday."
In March, ABC News affiliate WATE interviewed members of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America, who stood opposed to the bill citing the increase in gun violence in Knoxville. That was just a month before Monday's deadly school shooting in Knoxville.
Other law enforcement groups and officials have also spoken out against the now incoming law, including Brentwood Police Department’s Police Chief Jeff Hughes.
Hughes explained his department’s opposition to the change that he said will add a new layer of challenges to policing and potentially endanger officers and civilians.
“It really takes away the authority of us to investigate any suspicious person openly carrying in a public place,” Brentwood Police Department Chief Jeff Hughes said.
“So if we were to get a call right now about somebody here in Brentwood who was walking around with a gun and we went to investigate it we at least have the ability to see if they have a permit to carry that weapon,” Hughes said. “When it becomes law we will no longer be able to do that. So if we get a call about a suspicious person carrying a gun in public, our hands are tied.”
Hughes said that while they’ll still be able to attempt to have a consensual conversation with someone, a person that police believe may be a threat will have no legal obligation to engage with police simply for carrying a firearm.
“It’s really going to change how we do business,” Hughes said. “We’re just not going to answer those calls. We have no legal right to investigate those further unless they’re actually using that weapons to do something.”
“We can’t from a liability standpoint put our officers in a position where they’re illegally detaining someone or seizing their person by detaining them to see if they’re legally carrying openly,” Hughes continued. “So it’s just going to become the new norm that when you see someone out that you’ll have to accept that it’s the law that they can do it and there can’t be an expectation that we can do anything about it.”
Hughes said that this creates new training challenges with officers and could cause confusion and negatively impact the public’s perception of police.
In addition Hughes said that he’s concerned that more guns on the streets could lead to an increase in serious violence.
That violence is not as likely to be seen in the form of mass shootings, which have been a regular occurrence across the nation in recent weeks. Although Hughes said that no community is immune to such incidents, he said that his real concern is the escalation of violence in public.
"What might have been a fistfight could now escalate to a gunfight if somebody potentially loses their temper and they have that gun readily available," Hughes said.
The incoming law also increases some penalties including changing the theft of a gun from a misdemeanor to a felony, something that Hughes and the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association have both expressed support for.
Hughes said that despite the increased penalty, more guns are likely to make their way into the public come July.
"We've seen a tremendous amount of juvenile crime in our county and our neighboring city to the north, Nashville. It's been a huge problem, juvenile crime has been a huge problem, and thefts of guns have been one of the primary catalysts for breaking into cars and stealing cars to get the guns that people leave in their cars," Hughes said.
"So now if people are legally allowed to carry guns they may choose to leave them in their cars than to carry them on their person, so the potential for more guns to be in the public is certainly going to increase, and I think that's going to lead to more guns that are stolen."
A core tenant of firearms ownership is being a responsible gun owner, something that Hughes and BPD Assistant Police Chief Richard Hickey said should be vital for anyone who wishes to own or carry a firearm.
Hickey said that while cars were not outlined in the Constitution, the state requires testing and licensing to operate a motor vehicle to ensure safety on the road, and safety is a paramount concern when dealing with firearms.
“The weight of that is far more than driving a car,” Hickey said. “So it’s common sense to me that we would do something to ensure that they [gun owners] would have some level of training and competency to carry a gun in public, and it would make our job so much easier to do that.”
“If you’re going to do that [carry a gun], be a good, responsible person and go get some training, even though the law says you don’t have to, do it anyway,” Hickey said. “Go get some training on firearm safety and make sure that you know what you’re doing before you start carrying it. I just think good responsible people should do that anyway.”
Hughes added that while permits won’t be required after July 1, he would still recommend that gun owners wishing to carry go through the permit process for that training, something he said he doubts most people will choose to actually do.
Hughes and Hickey said that regardless of their concerns about the new law, they are both supporters of the Second Amendment and thankful for the longstanding support that Gov. Lee has shown to law enforcement.
And while the real impact of the incoming law may not be known for months or years after it’s implemented, the concern among law enforcement is evident.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that more guns is going to equate to less crime,” Hughes said. “It’s a philosophical issue, and I strongly support the Constitution and the right to bear arms, but the better option to me would have been to have stuck with our permit process which seemed to be working well.”