A large group of people walks down East Person in Memphis for the "Unity Walk against Gun Violence"
Community residents and people from across Memphis march on East Person in South Memphis on June 12 during a “Unity Walk against Gun Violence.” Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

A new Tennessee law that allows most adults to carry a handgun without a permit could lead to more tragedies in Memphis’ Black communities already beleaguered by gun violence and exacerbate tensions with police, some local and state leaders said.

The law goes into effect Thursday and allows most people 21 and older to carry a handgun, openly or concealed, without a permit or training. The measure was pushed through by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee on April 8, despite opposition by Democrats and some law enforcement organizations and local officials.

Portrait of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee
Gov. Bill Lee

Memphis community leaders, including Stevie Moore, fear what may come next.

“It makes me sick in the stomach to think about July 1,” said Moore, founder of Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives, a nonprofit focused on ending gun violence.

Moore, whose son was shot to death in 2003, was among a large group that gathered June 12 at Hamilton High School for a “Unity Walk Against Gun Violence” through South Memphis. Students, religious leaders, elected officials, and mothers with shirts commemorating their slain children called for a collective effort to end shootings in Memphis.

Now, Moore is bracing himself for the “wild, wild west,” he said.

The Rev. Melvin Watkins, pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church — Westwood, said the law indicates the legislature is careless and insulated from the consequences of gun violence.

“They don’t see our children; they don’t see our boys and girls; they don’t see (people getting shot) driving down I-240. They don’t see all of that,” Watkins said. “If they saw what I see, they would not be trying to pass laws to make it easier for individuals to (carry) guns without permits.”

Lee pushed the measure as a part of his “public safety agenda” and said it would make Tennessee safer, the Tennessean reported. However, local officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland and Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, expect the opposite. Strickland has said he thinks the change will lead to more gun violence, while Davis has said it complicates traffic stops.

The law comes as both officials are looking to tackle Memphis’ rising crime rates, which match a national uptick. New guidelines for federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars will allow the funds to be spent on public safety, including hiring new officers for MPD, Strickland announced Wednesday.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland speaks at an event.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

It was the same day President Joe Biden’s administration announced a “comprehensive strategy to combat gun violence and other violent crime,” including by allowing local governments to use American Rescue Plan Act funds in the fight. The money can be used for preventative measures, including hiring more police officers, for community violence intervention and efforts to stop the flow of illegal firearms.

The strategy does not address right-to-carry laws.

Homicides rose 30% in large cities last year mainly due to the social and economic stress of the pandemic, according to a study from the Council on Criminal Justice cited in the White House’s comprehensive strategy plan. In Memphis, between January and March, there were 1,576 gun-related violent incidents, which is up 30% over last year, according to data from the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

A 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that right-to-carry laws are associated with a 13-15% percent increase in violent crime 10 years after they’re enacted.

Members of law enforcement oppose the new law, including the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association, the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

A representative for Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. said in a statement that Bonner supports the Second Amendment but doesn’t support permitless carry because it doesn’t offer training and education before gun owners can carry their weapons.

“The current (Tennessee) handgun carry process allows for background checks and a minimum level of training or verification of training in the use of firearms,” the statement says. “It provides for training about the state’s firearm laws, and education in the correct use of firearms, such as when someone can employ the firearm to protect themselves or others.

“There is a process to obtain a license to drive an automobile, which ensures your ability to operate the vehicle and the testing of your knowledge about traffic laws. There should be similar common-sense requirements before a 21-year-old can start carrying a firearm in public.”

Fears of escalation

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich stands next to a group of young Black boys who are members of the South Memphis Warriors Youth Football Organization.
Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich stands with members of the South Memphis Warriors Youth Football Organization during the “Unity Walk against Gun Violence” at Hamilton High School. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

The law change doesn’t apply to people legally prohibited from owning a gun, including those convicted of felonies.

Republican legislators have framed the change as protecting the Second Amendment with “constitutional carry” and argue it will increase public safety.

“That’s marketing,” said Democratic state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, whose district covers parts of North Memphis. “It doesn’t matter how they frame it; it still has its consequences.”

Parkinson worries the new law could lead to an escalation in armed confrontations.

“I’m concerned that there could be more (shootings) because the access (to guns) is completely there, now. We don’t know the mental conditions of the people that are carrying. You don’t know where a person is at any moment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that they’re mentally ill. It could be a whole host of things.”

Parkinson is also concerned that the loss of required classes for a permit could result in new gun owners misusing their weapons out of ignorance of gun laws. Additionally, while the bill supposedly expands gun liberties, Parkinson doesn’t expect Black gun owners to receive the same grace as white gun owners.

“We already know the law is not applied evenly when it comes to minority populations and others, and so I look at who will be charged and convicted in cases where people use stand your ground laws as a defense.”

The new law removes the offense of carrying a handgun without a permit but raises the penalties for other gun-related offenses. Theft of a firearm is raised from a misdemeanor to a felony under the new law and people convicted of felonies who are caught with firearms cannot be granted early release.

Increasing tension between citizens and police

James Ryall with the Memphis Police Department talks to community members during a rally against gun violence.
Former interim police director James Ryall (center) says the permitless carry law creates “a little tension and concern.” Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

Moore thinks the law will widen the trust “gap” between police officers and communities like South Memphis. Rep. Jesse Chism agreed.

“It’s going to feed an already tense environment between police officers and citizens of color. I’m afraid one unintended consequence of this bill will be more police shootings,” Chism said.

The Memphis Police Department will adjust its training given the change, said James Ryall, who was interim director when he attended the “Unity Walk Against Gun Violence” on June 12. Usually, an officer can legally approach an armed person and ask for their permit, but after the law goes into effect, that won’t be the case, he said.

“And when an officer approaches someone who’s armed, not having that ability to check it out, it’s going to create that ‘unknown zone’ and that’s a strong concern to our fellow officers out there.”

James Ryall, Memphis Police Department

“It does create a little tension and concern,” Ryall said. “Knowledge is power, so we’re going to help educate our officers about the new law, about things they can and can’t do,” Ryall said at the walk. “It is pretty eerie for officers because we don’t have to sit here and talk about what guns can do. And when an officer approaches someone who’s armed, not having that ability to check it out, it’s going to create that ‘unknown zone’ and that’s a strong concern to our fellow officers out there.”

Moore contends the heaviest consequences of the change won’t fall on suburbs like Germantown and Collierville, rather on economically distressed communities in the “inner city.”

“Most of them never been in South Memphis, they ain’t never been in North Memphis, ain’t been in Westwood and won’t come because they’re afraid to come. They’ll pass (the law) because they’re in Nashville and they ain’t got to come to our community.”

Stevie Moore, founder of Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives

“They’re sitting up behind a desk, want to get reelected and getting money from the National Rifle Association,” Moore said. “Most of them never been in South Memphis, they ain’t never been in North Memphis, ain’t been in Westwood and won’t come because they’re afraid to come. They’ll pass (the law) because they’re in Nashville and they ain’t got to come to our community.”

Jonathan Cross, a Black gun instructor, believes the effects of the new gun law will be minimal because the existing permit standards are so low.

“People who have the permit, they haven’t really been trained; they are under the illusion that they’ve been trained,” Cross said. “What I’ve seen is that people who have permits have a very low probability of seeking additional training. They are more of a danger to themselves or a danger to society than they are defender of their own life, because they literally have not been trained.”

Cross, who spent part of his childhood in Frayser — an area that is fighting gun violence — argues a key to curbing gun violence is arming and training vulnerable communities, he said.

“I take issue with the phrase ‘gun violence.’ In my mind, there is no such thing as gun violence; there is violence. And people who are prone to commit violence, will commit violence in the face of people who do not have the ability to stop them,” Cross said.

And even with a permitting system, criminals don’t obtain guns legally, he said.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com

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