The Many Problems with Tennessee’s Guns in Trunks Law

In Tennessee, few gun laws passed in the last decade have been as controversial as “guns in trunks.” And few gun laws have made the public less safe.

The first time the legislation came close to passing was in 2012. The business community was vehemently opposed to the idea. Rep. Debra Maggart, the Republican Caucus Chair and lifetime NRA member with an A rating found herself in the middle of the fight between second amendment rights supporters and business owners who felt their property rights were being usurped. Ultimately, she sided with the business community. Retribution was quick and severe. The NRA spent over $100,000 to primary her, and smearing her name and reputation in the process.

The following year, with Maggart out of the way and other lawmakers aware of what could happen to them if they voted the wrong way, the first version of the “guns in trunks” law was passed in 2013.  It pertained only to permit holders, and the legislation included specific language mandating how the firearms were to be stored in motor vehicles, noting that they should be kept from ordinary observation and locked within the trunk, glove box, or interior of the person’s motor vehicle or a container securely affixed to such motor vehicle if the permit holder is not in the motor vehicle.”  But, the legislation did not include any penalty for permit holders who broke the law by not storing their firearm according to the statute.  (TCA 39-17-1313 (a)(2)(B))

In 2014, legislation was passed to expand “guns in trunks” to include anyone in legal possession of a firearm, not only permit holders.  However, the 2014 legislation did not include specific language that specified how firearms in vehicles were to be stored.  (TCA 39-17-1307 (e)(1)(A))

This creates some questions:

  • Why did the 2013 legislation include provisions mandating how guns were to be stored in vehicles, but not include any penalty for individuals who did not comply?
  • Why was the 2014 legislation included in a different section of code than the 2013 law? In other words, why didn’t the 2014 legislation simply delete “permit holder” and replace it with “anyone in lawful possession of a firearm”?
  • Why did the 2014 legislation not include any language related to how the guns were to be stored in vehicles?
  • Why are permit holders required to store their guns locked in the trunk, glove box, or interior of a locked car, but non-permit holders are not required to store their guns in the same way?

These questions are in addition to the myriad issues that this law has created in terms of skyrocketing gun thefts from vehicles in Tennessee, especially in Nashville and Memphis, and the correlating increases in homicides.

Guns in Yorlets murder came from unlocked carsNewsChannel 5, February 2020

Gun thefts from cars up 85 percent in two years in Tennessee, some police blame lawsThe Tennessean, February 2019

Guns stolen from cars in Nashville increased by more than 390% since 2012The Tennessean, December 2019

Gun thefts from vehicles in Memphis increased 256% since 2013WMC, February 2019

“Laws have unintended consequences. We cannot ignore that as a legislature passes laws that make guns more accessible to criminals that has a direct effect on our violent crime rate.” – Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, February 2017

The homicide rates, for all ages and youth ages 0-19, have both increased significantly in the years since guns in trunks went into effect. As the number of guns stolen from cars in Tennessee has gone up, so have the number of people being murdered with firearms. The rates in Tennessee far outpace U.S. averages.

The evidence is clear. The guns in trunks law is bad policy. The spike in gun thefts from Tennessee cars correlates with dramatic increases in state firearm homicide rates. Permit holders who break the law by storing unsecured guns in unlocked cars can do so with impunity. Non-permit holders are not even required lock their vehicles if they are storing loaded guns inside.

At the very least, careless gun owners who leave unsecured guns in unlocked cars should be held responsible, although in the interest of public safety, a better option would be to listen to law enforcement and repeal the law altogether.