The Tennessee Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would let gun owners carry their weapons openly without a permit.
Lawmakers voted 25-2 to pass a measure filed by state Sen. Mae Beavers that would do away with the requirement that gun owners go through a background check, receive training and obtain a permit before carrying a handgun in public. Gun owners would have to get a permit only if they plan to conceal their weapons.
State Sens. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterrey, and Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, cast the only votes against the bill, though six senators abstained.
The bill won support from East Tennessee senators.
"I think it's a great step and a great bill," said Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. "I'm glad you [Sen. Beavers] were finally able to get it through."
East Tennessee sheriffs say the bill is concerning and they're worried about unintended consequences.
"If the word got out or if people knew they could come to Tennessee and carry a weapon, I'm sure that armed robberies are going to increase," said Claiborne County Sheriff David Ray. "Apparently they're wanting everyone in the state of Tennessee to carry a firearm. I'm against that. I think it's ridiculous."
Sheriff Ray says he believes in the Second Amendment but thinks guns need some regulation.
Some East Tennessee gun owners we spoke with say they agree, but they have mixed feelings.
"It's going to build up the stress on law enforcement," said Eric Maston, an owner at Tactical Advantage Corp. "It's going to make some law abiding citizens feel uncomfortable."
Maston says gun rights supporters in his store are split on the bill. Some worry in part about putting fewer people through safety training classes.
Beavers and other supporters dismissed those concerns. She says other states have passed similar bills and have seen little to no impact.
"Such activity has not caused increased danger to public safety or resulted in increased crime," said Beavers.
Sheriff Ray isn't so sure.
"This is not 1875. It just seems to me this is going to escalate all the crime to a higher level."
The bill's prospects in the House of Representatives are uncertain.
Tennessee already allows gun ownership without a permit if the weapon is kept in the home. Lawmakers have debated legislation this year that would allow carrying a gun in a vehicle without a permit.
The Open Carry Firearms Freedom Act, Senate Bill 2424, goes a step beyond and would let someone carry in public without a permit. The bill does not appear to affect laws that ban carrying a gun while under the influence of alcohol, prohibit convicted criminals from carrying a gun or let businesses and local governments ban firearms.
Because those laws remain on the books, the bill's primary impact, if were to pass the House, would be to make it easier to transport a gun, said John Harris, a lawyer and the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association.
Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, emphasized the same point on the Senate floor. She also stressed the symbolic importance of allowing Tennesseans to carry a handgun without having to pay the $115 permit fee.
"Tennessee law (currently) converts the right to carry a handgun into a privilege," Beavers said.
But Harris said he doubts the bill will pass the House, noting that the House Finance Subcommittee has delayed a vote on the measure until the end of the year.