NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two years after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee led the charge to allow residents 21 and older to carry handguns in public without a permit, younger adults could soon have the same privilege, with or without the governor’s signoff.
A gun rights group sued after the law was passed in 2021, arguing that the age limit should be lower. Then late last year, the state’s top lawyer moved to negotiate a settlement rather than defend the law, citing last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding gun rights. In January, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti proposed a deal that would allow 18- to 20-year-olds to carry handguns publicly.
A judge put the arrangement on hold for a 30-day period that ends Friday. What will happen then is unclear. Conflicting opinions on the settlement within the state are a reflection of a broader U.S. political divide over who should be allowed to have guns — a debate that rages on against a backdrop of continual headlines about deadly mass shootings.
“It strikes me as a little bit unusual (for Tennessee) to settle at this point, rather than wait for a decision” on the lawsuit, said Andrew Willinger, executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law at Duke University’s law school.
In its June 2022 decision, which followed a series of mass shootings, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. As part of that ruling, the justices said lower-court judges reviewing state gun laws should only consider whether those statutes are consistent with the country’s “historical tradition of firearm regulation,” not whether they enhance public safety or serve other public interests. The standard has spurred sometimes-conflicting decisions as lower court judges struggle to figure out how to apply it.
Two months after the high court’s decision, a federal judge struck down a law in Texas barring adults under 21 from carrying a handgun — and the state’s attorney general dropped an appeal. In contrast, a federal circuit appeals court upheld a law in Florida that bars 18- to 20-year-olds from buying — but not possessing — guns.
Skrmetti’s proposed settlement concludes that Tennessee’s current age range violates the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd and 14th Amendments.
“To restore the rights of an entire community of folks in Tennessee is a great win for us,” Bill Sack, director of legal operations for the Firearms Policy Coalition, said when the deal was struck in January. The coalition, which filed the lawsuit in 2021, is a national nonprofit organization that advocates for the right to bear arms in the U.S.
For their part, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee are considering lowering the age limit themselves so the attorney general’s proposal isn’t just mandated on them through the court system. Legislation to do so passed the House, but not the Senate last year.
Lee proposed the 21-and-up permitless carry law. Now, his administration is sending some mixed signals on dropping the age. The governor told reporters last month that he thinks the current law works well.
Two days before that, the lobbyist for his Department of Safety, Elizabeth Stroecker, told a legislative committee that reducing the age limit to 18 “is actually something we would be comfortable with” and something the department is “working on through pending litigation.” During a legislative meeting last year, however, Stroeker expressed concerns that dropping the carry age could spur some states to stop recognizing Tennessee’s carry permits. A spokesperson for the safety department declined to answer if that’s still a concern.
Lee also has said he needs to speak with Skrmetti about the proposed court settlement. The governor’s office has since declined to say whether he did so.
The previous attorney general, Herbert Slatery, had defended the law limiting permitless carry to 21 and older, but acknowledged in a filing last year that the Supreme Court case could affect the lawsuit.
Tennessee is the only state with an attorney general picked by its Supreme Court, a setup praised by proponents as creating independence from politics. But critics argue that the position has become increasingly politicized.
Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville attorney, contends that Skrmetti “breached his duty to zealously represent the state.”
“He essentially assumed his new office, and then proceeded to roll over and wave a white flag on a lawsuit that essentially allows a radical gun group to rewrite state law from the judicial branch,” Clemmons said.
Tennessee has made it a point to pass gun-friendly laws. Gun owners seeking permits must go through training and receive a background check —but the permits themselves became optional with the 2021 law. In addition, 18- to 20-year-olds can already own handguns, they just generally can’t carry them publicly — with or without a permit. Young adults with military backgrounds may do so, however.
Public housing agencies in Tennessee, meanwhile, cannot write leases that bar tenants from having guns in their homes, under a state appeals panel’s decision last year that was also influenced by the Supreme Court decision. Gun rights advocates have also sued to block limitations on when people can carry guns in public parks, recreational centers and similar places.
As Skrmetti’s court settlement hangs in the balance, a bill is moving through the legislature that would not only lower the public-carry age limit, but also expand permitless carry to assault rifles and other long guns.
Top law enforcement officials oppose that change, saying it will create public panic, erode progress in police de-escalation training and put officers in dangerous situations.
“If we increase the number and types of firearms that are being carried, and potentially left unsecured, then we’re also opening up that opportunity for those guns to fall into the hands of the criminal element, which is where they have been falling,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch.
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