This story was originally published April 15, 2021, by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for its newsletters here.

This story also appeared in The Trace

Twenty years ago, only one state allowed residents to carry firearms without a license. Tennessee just became the 19th state to adopt “permitless carry.”

Amid a deadly surge in gun violence over the last year, several Republican-led states are expanding gun rights, sometimes against the advice of local law enforcement agencies. 

So far in 2021, at least four states — Utah, Montana, Iowa, and Tennessee — have approved laws that would allow the carrying of firearms without a state-issued permit, a background check, or training. Several other state legislatures, including those in Texas and South Carolina, are considering similar legislation and could add to the list of 19 states with the most permissive form of concealed carry laws.

Like many other states, Tennessee saw a significant increase in firearm fatalities in 2020. Knoxville saw a record-high number of killings in 2020. In Nashville and Memphis, homicides rose by 32 percent and 48 percent, respectively, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. In Memphis, which has long struggled with elevated rates of gun violence, that trend has worsened. As of March 2, 2021, the city has had 55 homicides this year. Over the same time period in 2020, there had been only 29 homicides, according to a resolution the Memphis City Council sent to state lawmakers in opposition to the permitless carry bill. 

Still, on April 8, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed House Bill 786, a law that will allow Tennessee residents to carry handguns — openly or concealed — without a permit. The law applies to people 21 and older (as well as members of the military who are over 18), and goes into effect on July 1.

Gun deaths on the rise

The successes of gun rights proponents in 2021 come after 2020 marked the largest number of firearm homicides in at least 20 years, an increase many experts attribute to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that operates a database of gun violence incidents in the United States, tracked 3,947 more firearm homicides in 2020 than in 2019.

The growth of permitless carry is a relatively recent trend. Just two decades ago, only one state, Vermont, allowed residents to carry firearms without permits. In 2003, Alaska legalized permitless carry. It was another seven years before Arizona followed suit. In the last 11 years, as Republican lawmakers gained more power in state legislatures and increasingly embraced less restrictive gun laws, an additional 16 states have legalized permitless carry. 

States are looking to expand gun rights just as President Joe Biden promotes his new plans for executive action on gun reform and as Democratic members of Congress push for federal action on background checks. Permitless carry laws, often called constitutional carry by proponents, are popular among conservative gun rights advocates who say permit requirements limit their rights to carry guns for self defense. Supporters argue that the Constitution gives a person a right not just to own guns but to carry them, and that permits infringe upon that right. Every state allows the carrying of concealed firearms, but most still require permits and many require proof of firearms knowledge or hands-on training and a background check.

In Tennessee, the governor, a conservative Republican, has said the permitless carry bill is part of his “public safety agenda” and that it would help reduce gun violence in the Volunteer State: “This particular piece of legislation not only protects the Second Amendment but it actually creates a safer environment and stiffens penalties for those that break the law,” Lee said during a National Rifle Association town hall in late March. The law makes theft of a firearm a felony instead of a misdemeanor and also bars felons convicted of possessing a firearm from getting early release. Lee said he believes the increased penalties will deter theft and illegal possession, adding that lifting regulations on “law-abiding citizens” does “nothing to increase crime,” adding: “It’s increasingly important in this country. That’s why you see every year more and more states across the country bringing this piece of legislation forward.”

Police: Fewer permits don’t equal public safety

Law enforcement organizations in Tennessee have disputed the suggestion that the new law will improve public safety, with most — including the state’s police chiefs and sheriffs associations and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations — opposing the legislation. Law enforcement leaders, including Memphis’ police chief, say that removing the permit requirement will make it harder for police to determine who possesses firearms through legal means.

Opponents of the change have pointed to a 2014 law that allowed people to carry guns in their cars without permits. That change contributed to an increase in drive-by shootings and guns stolen from cars, said Bill Gibbons, the president of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, a nonprofit focused on public safety in Memphis. 

Between 2013 and 2018, the number of guns stolen from cars in Memphis rose 256 percent, according to data compiled by the commission. Gibbons said he doesn’t oppose concealed or open carry, but does fear similar consequences from permitless carry. “You’re simply going to have more people on our streets and in our neighborhoods, carrying guns with no training and no background check,” he said. “I think the result for that is very obvious.”

Delvin Lane leads the 901 B.L.O.C. Squad, a group that has been battling violence in Memphis for nearly a decade. Lane said he understood the desire for law-abiding people to have protection by carrying guns, but worries that the change will lead to more guns in cars and on the streets. “They are kind of taking you back to the old cowboy days where everybody had a gun,” he said. “What that would do is increase the opportunity for a lot of guns to be stolen.”

Solid research slow to arrive

There is a dearth of research on the effects of permitless carry laws. “Part of the delay in research on the effects of permitless carry laws is that, for the most part, they’re relatively rare before 2016,” said Rosanna Smart, the lead author of a RAND Corporation metastudy on the effects of gun laws. As for permissive concealed carry laws generally, limited evidence points toward more firearm violence versus less, Smart said.  Some studies have found that more permissive concealed carry laws are associated with increased levels of violent crime, but the strength of the association is still disputed. One study from the American Journal of Public Health found that “shall-issue” permit laws — which give law enforcement agencies little discretion to deny permits — were associated with a 10.6 percent increase in handgun homicide rates.

Proponents of permitless carry have not been successful everywhere in 2021. In Indiana, a proposal to allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit died in the state Senate. Legislation is stalled in Florida and Alabama, where gun rights supporters have pushed similar legislation for years to no avail. Proposals in North Carolina and Louisiana are also stalled, and a bill to allow permitless carry died in Georgia when the Legislature adjourned for the year. It remains alive for the current session and the governor has announced his support for it.

Meanwhile, several states have passed or are advancing other pro-gun bills. In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey on April 6 signed a “Second Amendment sanctuary” bill barring state law enforcement agencies from enforcing some federal firearms laws. Lawmakers in Montana have sent a similar bill to their governor, and similar bills are advancing in Missouri and in North Dakota, where lawmakers are also considering a “stand your ground” bill that removes the duty to retreat before using deadly force. In New Hampshire, the state House passed a bill on April 7 that would expand the state’s preemption law, which limits local gun regulations.

A fifth and potentially sixth state could still legalize permitless carry this year. On April 7, the South Carolina House of Representatives approved a permitless carry bill, sending it to the state Senate. That bill, HB3096, would also allow people to carry a loaded firearm – openly or concealed – in public without a background check or safety training. In Texas, a permitless carry bill has been approved by a House committee and awaits a floor vote, though the bill could be held up in the Senate.

“Eliminating the background check and permit requirement for carrying in public has been a top priority of the gun rights movement for the past several years,” said Allison Anderman, senior counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “And in states where they control the legislature, they’re getting it done.”

This story was originally published April 15, 2021 at thetrace.org.

Chip Brownlee for The Trace

Chip Brownlee is an investigative fellow at The Trace, a nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom covering guns and gun violence in America.