Civilian Permits

Civilian Handgun Permit Law


Prior to 1989, Tennessee was a limited “open carry” state.  Tennessee’s open carry law was limited to “army or navy” pistols but only if such pistols were carried openly in the hand.  The statute did not allow citizens to holster the weapons or to carry these types of pistols concealed.  A person would have to become a special deputy or receive a special police commission in order carry a handgun that did not fit the “army or navy” designation. These commissions were also necessary if the individual wanted to carry the weapon concealed or holstered.

In 1989, Tennessee overhauled its handgun carry laws to provide that sheriffs “may issue” a handgun carry permit to authorize “any person” to carry a handgun. This change in the law allowed a sheriff to issue handgun carry permits without having to make the person a special deputy or officer.  Although the 1989 law authorized a sheriff to issue handgun carry permits there were problems.  First, it did not require the sheriff to issue civilian permits.  Second, the permits were only good in the county in which they were issued.

The Adoption of a “shall issue” standard

In May 1994 the Tennessee Legislature meagerly addressed the desire of the citizens to carry firearms.  Although the Tennessee Legislature attempted to liberalize the laws regarding the issuance of handgun carry permits and to address other problems which had been recognized since the passage of the 1989 law, it failed to adequately do so.

With the passage of the 1994 law, Tennessee went from a “may issue” state to a “shall issue” state.  As a “shall issue” law, the law seemingly required the chief law enforcement officer to issue a handgun carry permit to an applicant, who was otherwise qualified to own a handgun in the state, unless the chief law enforcement officer believed “for good cause and in the exercise of reasonable discretion” that the applicant should not be issued a handgun carry permit.

With the increase in the number of citizens applying for handgun permits after the 1994 law went into effect, several problems began to surface under the 1994 law. These problems generally related to the fact that the law authorized the chief law enforcement officer of each county to issue handgun carry permits to the residents of that county, but it did very little to regulate or standardize the handgun permitting process. With 95 counties, Tennessee had different interpretations of the law and permitting processes. Consequently, the applications, application fees, background checks and even the probability of obtaining a permit varied widely by county.

Because of the significant inconsistencies with the implementation of the 1994 handgun carry law by the chief law enforcement officers of the various counties, various bills were introduced in 1995 and 1996 in the Tennessee Legislature to standardize the handgun permitting process.  Finally, in April 1996, the Legislature passed the 1996 law which transferred the responsibility for issuing handgun carry permits from the county level to the Department of Safety.  The 1996 law also standardized the permitting process to be the same application process and fee structure statewide.

The 1996 law went into effect October 1, 1996. During the two year period from October 1, 1994, through September 30, 1996, it is estimated that approximately 7,000 handgun permits had been issued in Tennessee at the county level.  On October 1, 1996, the floodgates opened. With reduced fees, the elimination of the bonding requirement, and a permitting process no longer subject to 95 different interpretations, the citizens rushed to apply for handgun carry permits. However within only a few months, it once again became evident there were serious problems with the state’s interpretation and administration of the 1996 law.

By January 1997 it was apparent that what should have been a relatively simple process and what is a relatively simple process in most other states was not working in Tennessee. Fingerprint cards were being returned and redone because they were unclassifiable (e.g., smudged prints). Computerized background checks were being rejected because applicants would have arrest and criminal histories with open dispositions. Chief law enforcement officers either were not responding timely to the requests for background checks and/or were qualifying their responses to these background checks. Thus, even in instances where an applicant had a completely clean criminal record, testimony before the Tennessee House Judiciary Committee in early 1997 reflected that it could have easily taken from 9 months to more than a year to complete the application process.

In February and March 1997, the Tennessee House Judiciary Committee conducted extensive hearings in an effort to determine what was wrong with the handgun permitting system that the Tennessee Legislature created less than a year before. As a result of those hearings, the Tennessee Legislature passed yet more legislation in 1997 in an effort to eliminate the delays in issuing the civilian handgun carry permits. By virtue of the 1997 law, Tennessee became a “leading issuance” state similar to what had existed in Florida.

Under the 1997 law, the Department of Safety was required to issue a handgun carry permit within 90 days of the date of the application—even if the criminal history check has not been completed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.  Although this change in the law should have required only minor, technical amendments to the 1996 law, the 1997 law became severely burdened with many other provisions which have been critically denounced as being fundamentally contrary to the constitutionally protected rights of the citizens of this state to keep, bear, and wear arms.

This brief outline of the history and status of Tennessee’s handgun carry permit laws helps understand what now exists.  While the 1994 handgun carry law and its successors may not have materially increased the number of citizens and other individuals actually carrying handguns in Tennessee, it certainly increased the number of citizens carrying handguns in conjunction with civilian handgun carry permits.

Likewise, with the reduced fees and costs which went into effect with the 1996 handgun carry law, it was predicted there would be tens of thousands of new applicants for handgun carry permits. In the first year after the 1996 law, tens of thousands of Tennesseans did obtain civilian handgun carry permits. If statistics from other states are a good indicator, Tennessee can anticipate 2 to 3 percent of its citizens will ultimately exercise their right to carry a handgun — even if it requires they obtain a handgun carry permit to do so “legally” in the eyes of the government.  That estimate, in 1996, projected 100,000 to 150,000 permits would be issued.  The number of Tennesseans who have been issued handgun carry permits exceed 300,000 by recent statistics.

The changes in the handgun carry laws since 1994 have also spawned a material increase in the “self-defense” industry in Tennessee. These changes have caused, or at least should have caused, many people to reconsider the issue of self-protection, and, in particular, the use of a firearm for purposes of self-protection. The use of a firearm for self-defense involves the questions of what is deadly force and when may it be legally used in Tennessee without incurring criminal and/or civil liability?

The Tennessee Carry Permit Law In A Nutshell

As a result of the changes in the handgun permit laws from 1994 through 1997, Tennessee issues civilian handgun carry permits that have the following general attributes:

  • the initial application fee is $115 (cash) and requires the successful completion of a state certified handgun training course prior to making application for the permit;
  • the state must respond to the application within 90 days by either issuing the permit or notifying the applicant of any problems with the application;
  • renewal fees are $50 and, like a driver’s license, do not require further training or qualifications as a condition of renewal;
  • the handgun permit is good for four years;
  • the handgun permit is good “statewide;”
  • the handgun permit is good for any handgun that the permit holder legally owns or possesses; and
  • the handgun permit is not a concealed weapon permit.

The Tennessee civilian handgun permit is largely useless because a permit holder remains burdened with a patchwork of restrictions, prohibitions, conditions and traps set by the Tennessee Legislature, local governments, and the federal government.  As a result of that patchwork of regulations and restrictions, a permit holder cannot rely upon the handgun permit as a means of enabling him or her to legally have a handgun readily available whenever and wherever it may be needed.

What use can be made of a handgun for self-defense if the permit holder is effectively disarmed by governmental enactment of questionable constitutionality? Resolving this problem is one of the missions of the Tennessee Firearms Association’s members.