INTRODUCTION TO TENNESSEE’S HANDGUN PERMIT LAW
T.C.A. Title 39 Chapter 17 Part 13
Firearms ownership. The Founders of this Country knew that it was a right – not just a privilege or even a “license.” They viewed the right of private ownership of firearms as a necessary part of their efforts to protect this Country.
From their experiences, the Founding Fathers knew that tyrannical governments disarmed the people as part of their control mechanisms. They knew that standing armies were dangerous to a free people because they could be misused by a tyrant against the citizens. They knew that the impairment of free speech was dangerous to a free country and that suppression of free speech was one of the tools of a tyrant. They knew that warrantless searches and seizures were dangerous to a free country but that such searches were significant among the tools of a tyrant.
The Founding Fathers also knew that the rights of the people could only be ultimately protected by the people themselves. They knew that the rights of the people could only be protected from an out of control government through the guarantee of individual firearms ownership and the effective exercise of that right. The collective wisdom of the Founding Fathers determined that the existence of an armed population of free citizens was essential to the protection of a free country from its government and those individuals in control of the government.
The right of firearms ownership did not exist in the minds of the Founding Fathers solely for “sporting purposes,” hunting, or even self-defense. Those uses were assumed by the Founding Fathers without serious debate. The right of private ownership was viewed as a political right that they intended, under the constitutional scheme that they envisioned, to protect this Country from the type of tyrannical government that had existed in England and in numerous other countries throughout history. The right of firearms ownership that the Founding Fathers envisioned was not limited to “sporting weapons” but expressly includes firearms suitable for modern military use.
Against this historical context, Tennessee has had various laws, regulations, and ordinances regulating the ownership, possession, and carry of weapons and, in particular, firearms since its birth as a state. Although no longer as broad as it originally was intended, Tennessee law now provides that any “resident” of Tennessee who can legally own or possess a handgun is entitled to request and receive a permit to carry a handgun within the state of Tennessee. (See generally, 1997 Public Chapter 476, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1351 (ed. 1997)) Sadly, however, the right that the Founders recognized and sought to constitutionally protect is now viewed by those in control of the State of Tennessee as a mere privilege or license to be as heavily regulated as any other non-right might be. The legislative record demonstrates that the Tennessee Legislature does not view firearms ownership and possession as a right. To do so might impede its efforts to remove firearms ownership by certain segments of society and to infringe the rights of others.
In January 2002, the Tennessee Attorney General concluded that the “Tennessee Legislature intended to classify handgun permits as recreational licenses….” (See Tennessee Attorney General Opinion No: 02-003) Recreational licenses?
How is it that a right is now reduced to a mere recreational license by the state of Tennessee? The Founders may well have predicted such attempts by governments to impair the people from owning and carry weapons. Indeed, they knew that this is exactly how England’s tyrants had acted. Why else would the Constitution and so many state constitutions expressly provide that the right to own firearms would not be infringed? Why are firearms the only item of personal property expressly protected as an item of personal property in the federal constitution? Perhaps because the Founders did not trust that future governments would respect the rights of individuals as much as they did. Perhaps the Founders were better students of people, politics, governments and history than we realize and than we are. Perhaps they were psychic in this regard because the 200 years following their clear efforts to guarantee the protection of this individual right have demonstrated repeated and unrelenting efforts by those “in government” to deny, ignore and avoid the Second Amendment. We now have, by popular count, more than 20,000 laws seeking to impair firearms ownership, possession and carry. Why?
Tennessee’s modern handgun permit scheme for civilians began its current evolution in 1994 when Tennessee joined the ranks of “shall issue” states. Since October 1996, the Tennessee Department of Safety has been the state agency responsible for administering the civilian handgun permitting process in Tennessee. Detailed information regarding how to apply for and obtain a handgun carry permit is available at no cost from the Tennessee Department of Safety. (There are many individuals who may legally own and possess a firearm in Tennessee but who are prohibited, permanently or temporarily, from obtaining a Tennessee civilian handgun carry permit. See, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1351 (ed. 1997))
Generally, there are only two steps to obtain a civilian handgun carry permit in Tennessee. First, the applicant must successfully complete a handgun certification course having a minimum of 8 hours from a training school that is licensed by the State of Tennessee for such purpose. At present, the Department of Safety establishes by regulation the minimum content of these training courses. The only statutory guidance is that the course must have at least four hours of classroom and four hours of range training.
Upon the successful completion of the certification course, the applicant then contacts the Department of Safety to complete an application for the civilian handgun carry permit. The applicant must go to one of the Department of Safety’s full service drivers training stations, where the applicant will be fingerprinted and photographed, sign the application in the presence of a Department of Safety officer, and pay a non-refundable application fee in cash. The applicant then waits up to 90 days for the application to be processed by the State. Hopefully, at some later date, the applicant will receive a handgun carry permit in the mail. The process of obtaining a civilian handgun carry permit is time consuming and expensive – but it is not difficult to do.
Once the handgun permit is issued by the State there are many statutes, rules and regulations that impact what a person with a handgun carry permit may and may not do or where the permit holder may or may not go while in possession of the handgun. While these topics should have been clearly and completely covered in the required handgun certification course – it is clear that this is not always or even usually the case. Even if the materials were adequately covered in the course, there may still be a need to refresh or review from time to time.
It must be stressed that the laws, in Tennessee and across the nation, regarding handguns and self-defense have undergone many major changes during the thirty years immediately preceding the publication of this book. It should be recognized that these laws will likely continue to evolve with new legislation and new court decisions.