MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee announced his support Thursday for legislation that would remove handgun permit requirements in Tennessee, but the plan is drawing harsh criticism from law enforcement officials in Memphis.
Lee, and the NRA, both say the so-called constitutional carry law would secure Second-Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens. Sixteen states currently have similar laws in place.
The bill also would increase penalties for stealing guns, from 30 days to 180 days.
But Memphis and Shelby County officials say they have serious concerns about the proposed law’s effect on Tennessee’s largest city.
“I predict if this does pass, you’ll see an increase in gun violence in Memphis and across the state,” said Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, who hosted a press conference Thursday to respond to the governor’s proposal.
Rallings said he’s an NRA member, a veteran and a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. He said he can appreciate some aspects of the proposal, but he’s concerned enough about this legislation that he has requested a meeting with the governor about it.
“In a time when mass shootings have skyrocketed across the nation, at a time where I have police officers stationed all across the interstates, the governor goes in a different direction,” Rallings said.
Memphis ranks 7th in the nation in homicides, and 88% of those homicides involved a firearm last year, Rallings said. Eleven children were killed by gun violence.
Rallings said the access to guns, made easier by state laws, is a big part of the problem.
“We have to deal with the proliferation of guns, and that is a problem,” Rallings said.
Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said the proposal is likely to cause problems for local law enforcement.
“As District Attorney of a large urban area, I am opposed to it,” Weirich said. “I cannot think of any good reason why we would want to allow permitless open carry.”
Obtaining a handgun carry permit in Tennessee is an easy process, Weirich said, made easier by recent legislation that allows residents to obtain concealed-carry permits after a 90-minute online course. But certain people like convicted felons can’t get a permit.
Without permits, officers won’t be able to differentiate between someone who can legally carry a gun and someone who can’t, Weirich said.
Weirich compared the proposal to another recent Tennessee law that allows residents to carry guns in cars, which law enforcement officials in Memphis say has led to an increase in auto burglaries and more guns in the hands of criminals. Memphis’ police director has called for its repeal.
“We’ve seen, here in Shelby County, great issues for law enforcement and public safety because of guns in cars,” Weirich said. “This is just going to add to that problem and make it almost impossible for law enforcement to know if somebody with a weapon is a convicted felon and prohibited person.”
Rallings said the guns in cars law has fueled the theft of thousands of weapons stolen from vehicles in Tennessee since it went into effect in 2013.
Those guns are being used in robberies, carjackings and other crimes. Some are ending up in the hands of kids, he said.
“When the governor talks about law-abiding citizens, these law-abiding citizens are leaving guns in cars, and they’re being stolen and falling into the hands of the criminal element, who then are victimizing law-abiding citizens,” Rallings said.
One gun safety expert in Memphis said he thought the proposal was a bad idea in Memphis.
“To allow people to carry a gun in a city like Memphis, where people are remarkably uneducated on how to carry firearms, handle one safely, or the laws about carrying them, it’s going to get people hurt or killed,” said Will Dougan, a firearms safety instructor.
Similar bills were blocked in Tennessee in the past, but because Republicans control both chambers of Tennessee’s General Assembly, Lee’s support of the measure makes its passage more likely.
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat who represents Memphis, said she will oppose any permitless carry legislation.
Akbari said after Missouri passed a permitless carry bill in January 2017, the city of St. Louis experienced a nearly 25 percent increase in the rate of aggravated assaults with a gun in 2017 compared to 2016, according to research by gun control group Everytown For Gun Safety.
“Tennesseans support the 2nd Amendment, but they also believe firmly in responsible gun ownership and policies, like mandatory background checks, that promote accountability,” Akbari said in a statement. “Permitless carry is a bad idea that endangers every Tennessean.”
In the meantime, Rallings’ command staff is formulating a plan to deal with changes that would occur if the bill passes.
While the two sides try to reach an agreement on a solution, gun-related tragedies continue to occur in Memphis.
Just days ago, 16-year-old Jordan Milan was unintentionally shot and killed by his 17-year-old friend. His heartbroken family is concerned that access to guns by people who aren’t educated in using them is part of the problem.
“We put those guns in our babies’ lives at an early age,” said Milan’s aunt, Mary Trice. “When you have a trigger, when a child gets older, they feel that the same trigger can be a water gun, but it’s not. It’s a total different trigger.”