A trio of new ordinances crafted to stem the proliferation of guns in Memphis received across-the-board approval on a voice vote from members of the Memphis City Council Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee during its Tuesday (May 16) meeting.
The proposed ordinances will now go before the full council, where they will have a series of three readings. If approved, Memphis voters will vote them up or down on the August 2024 election ballot as individual referendums.
“The state legislature has been derelict in their duties. At some point in time, the City of Memphis should be voicing their opinion on the type of laws we need here that will ultimately govern ourselves,” said council Co-Chairman JB Smiley Jr. “I have no faith in the state legislature to pass laws to protect the city of Memphis. I have every faith in the people of Memphis to pass laws to protect ourselves.”
Smiley’s comments reflected the mood of committee members: To give the voters in Memphis a chance to let the Republican-dominated General Assembly know that they want stronger gun laws in a city experiencing an almost daily barrage of gun violence.
Among the limits being sought to local gun laws is a ban on open carry without a permit. The ordinance would also set rules for gun storage in vehicles or boats, to make it less likely for a firearm to be stolen.
A second ordinance would make the purchasing of assault weapons illegal. It would also bar current owners from open carrying the weapons in the city, while making sure the weapons are kept at home, unless being taken to an appropriate firing range for practice.
The second ordinance would not apply to law enforcement, members or the U.S. Armed Forces or the Tennessee National Guard.
There also are exemptions for current owners who completed an application, passed a background check, or have a receipt or purchase order for their rifle before the changes to the charter would go into effect.
Lastly, a red flag law is being proposed that would allow law enforcement to remove firearms from individuals who are deemed a potential danger, or risk.
“This would essentially be a trigger law, which would allow our government to automatically begin enforcing these laws once they’ve come into compliance with state laws,” said Councilmember Jeff Warren.
Warren also said he planned to include “carve-outs” to allow the local government to regulate firearms that “make our citizens safe” and “protect everyone’s right to bear arms.”
If voters approve, the ordinances would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025.
Tennessee gun owners currently are policed by some of the loosest gun laws in the nation. In 2021, the state legislature voted to allow gun owners as young as 18 years old to carry a firearm openly.
Warren offered, “I think part of the reason we are where we are in our state is the vast majority of legislators come from small towns, rural areas, where guns are more a tool that you use on the farm to keep varmints out of the chicken coop, or other things along that line.
“Essentially, we don’t really have that need in the city. Here, they are weapons that are used to kill people, not necessarily tools that are used to maintain order on your property.”
Councilmember Worth Morgan tried to tamp down expectations and cautioned about possible inaccurate reporting surrounding the ordinances.
“This is obviously something that is going to get a lot of attention. There’s going to be a lot of media around this,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of conversation about this between Memphis and Nashville…
“I want to make sure it’s reported accurately, what we’re doing.…If this passes 13-0 on third reading, this will not change gun laws in Memphis. What it does, it puts the question to the people about how they want to be governed and what their preferences would be.”
Tennessee law supersedes ordinances and laws passed by local governments that deny the “regulation of firearms, ammunition or components of firearms or ammunition, or combinations thereof” by any local agency, governing body, or elected official.
Morgan’s pessimism was cryptically countered by the council’s private attorney, Allan Wade.
“There are theories upon which we may have the authority to go forward without state law,” Wade said. “I don’t like to reveal litigation strategy in public…It’s not a foregone conclusion that there aren’t theories that this can be enforced without state law.”
Wednesday (May 17), a day after Wade’s comments, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a setback for gun rights advocates, refused to block a Democratic-backed ban on assault-style rifles and large capacity magazines enacted in Illinois after a deadly mass shooting in Chicago’s Highland Park suburb in 2022.
Tennessee state lawmakers, meanwhile, are set to bring up the issue of gun control on Aug. 21. Gov. Bill Lee called for a special session to discuss gun-reform proposals after waves of protests and pressure from Democrats following a deadly school shooting in Nashville on March 27.