Tennessee has one of the highest rates of women killed by men, most of whom are partners or family members using a gun. That is why those who deal daily with the consequences of domestic violence are among the most vocal critics of the new law that eliminates the state’s gun permit requirement.
They fear it will make it even harder to get weapons out of the hands of convicted abusers. So much so that Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk had hoped to be carved out of the new law.
“We will see some disastrous consequences from the expansion of the percentage of the population that will have weapons on them at all times,” says Funk.
Especially for domestic violence, which according to him already comprises half of all violent crime in Nashville.
“We have had a number of domestic violence-related killings, and many of those, probably most of those are gun-related,” says Funk.
By federal law, anyone convicted of domestic abuse or with an order of protection against them has to surrender their firearms. But enforcement is difficult, says Funk, especially in Tennessee, where convicted abusers don’t have to turn their guns over to authorities.
They can sign an affidavit saying they’re giving the weapons to a friend or relative — without showing that they did so, or actually turning that document in to anyone.
“There’s no punishment for the person who gets the gun but then gives it back. That person didn’t even have to be named in the document,” says Funk. “That person doesn’t have to come in front of a judge and say, ‘Yes, Judge, I’m receiving this gun and I’m not going to give it back to him.’ ”
That person may even be a convicted felon or abuser themselves, says Becky Bullard of Metro’s Office of Family Safety. She has found that already nearly half of all offenders who appear in Davidson County courts have guns.
Meanwhile, during COVID, there’s been an increase in the most severe domestic violence — and a surge in gun sales.
Adding a firearm to the equation
“Firearms are not only being purchased at astronomical rates during the pandemic, but they’re also being purchased in homes that have never had firearms before,” she says.
Bullard points to state data, which show that gun sales rose by more than 50% in 2020. She says that includes families where there already exists an abusive environment of power and control: “Adding a firearm to that equation can be incredibly deadly.”
As a former prosecutor, state Rep. Bruce Griffey knows the effects of gun violence on domestic abuse, but still he says, “We have to protect our Constitutional rights first and foremost, before we even start talking about domestic violence issues”
Griffey, R-Paris, sponsored a permitless carry bill that had even fewer restrictions than the one that cleared the legislature. To him, the Second Amendment trumps everything.
Griffey is in favor of additional legislation requiring convicted abusers to give up their guns, but doesn’t know of any such efforts currently. Even if there were, he says, criminals already don’t obey the law. That’s why he thinks what he and others call “constitutional carry” is necessary.
“Innocent, law-abiding citizens must have their constitutional rights protected and unabridged, because there’s a problem with a certain segment of society. They don’t get along. They use guns for whatever,” he said.
Yet studies find when an abuser has access to a gun — even a victim’s gun — they are five times more likely to kill the victim.
That’s one reason law enforcement has also come out against eliminating the permit requirement.
‘Relying on the honor system’
Memphis Deputy Police Chief Samuel Hines focused in his testimony at a state Senate hearing last month on domestic violence. Specifically, the inability to stop convicted offenders from circulating freely with their weapons under the permitless carry law which, he testified, “allows those who now carry illegal to conceal themselves among legal carriers in public places and among law enforcement officers without detection.”
Police can still ask someone if they’re a legal gun owner. However, under the new law, HB 786/SB 765, that person isn’t obliged to answer, or provide proof, unless there’s an active police investigation.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, is one of the sponsors behind the final version of the bill that Gov. Lee signed. Lamberth says the legislation “in no way changes” the existing laws to make convicted abusers get rid of their firearms, nor does it affect law enforcement’s ability to enforce those laws.
But Becky Bullard of the Family Safety Center says authorities will still have to take the word of those offenders: “We’re relying on the honor system with someone who was found to be essentially dishonorable and convicted of a violent crime.”
Fortunately, of the thousands of cases of domestic violence in Nashville every year, very few end in death. But, Bullard says, that means armed abusers mostly use their guns to threaten and intimidate victims. And with permitless carry, they may be able to do that in plain sight.