Shelby County is a speck of blue in ruby-red Tennessee; one of just four counties to vote for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Martin, who managed to pull in 33% of the vote statewide, but won Shelby County 54.2% – 43.2% over incumbent Bill Lee. Memphis-area lawmakers know they have no chance of enacting any new gun control legislation in the Republican-dominated statehouse, but they’re hoping that the GOP will throw them a bone when the 2023 session gets underway by exempting the county from the state’s permitless carry law.
There’s no doubt that violent crime is a serious problem in Memphis. The city saw a record number of homicides last year, and this year the grim statistics have only marginally improved. Democrats argue that the state’s permitless carry law, which went into effect in 2021, has fueled the violence in cities like Memphis and Nashville, and say those cities and their surrounding county should be able to opt out of the law and require carry licenses.
Senator London Lamar, a democrat representing District 33 in Memphis, is getting ready to make a big ask of her fellow state lawmakers.
On Tuesday, Nov. 22, she filed Senate Bill 0010 which “requires a person to obtain an enhanced or concealed handgun permit to carry a handgun in certain counties,” and those counties are Davidson and Shelby.
“While I know it will be an uphill battle,” Senator Lamar told Action News 5, “right now, we are still dealing with crime in our city. We need to make sure we are holding folks accountable who shouldn’t have guns, and people who can have guns can get them through the appropriate permitting process.”
Here’s the biggest flaw in Lamar’s argument. While 2021 did see a record number of murders in Memphis, the same was true in 2020, before the permitless carry law took effect. There was a slight bump from 333 homicides in 2020 to 346 in 2021, but clearly the problem goes much deeper than the state’s concealed carry laws. In fact, earlier this month The Atlantic had a feature on why it’s been so difficult to bring down the crime rate in the city; not just over the past couple of years, but for decades. The article spends a lot of time talking about (and criticizing) policing in the city, and what the authors found suggests that a change in tactics would be a much better option than carving Shelby County out of the state’s permitless carry law.
Even with a smaller force than its leaders would like, Memphis will spend 38 percent of its 2023 budget, almost $276 million, on policing and public safety. That’s among the highest rates for cities of its size. (By a different metric, spending on police per resident, Memphis rates are closer to the middle among big cities.) For example, Atlanta will spend 32 percent of its annual budget on policing in 2023, Louisville 24 percent, and Nashville roughly 20 percent. All three of those cities also saw significantly less violent crime and fewer murders per 100,000 residents in 2020 than Memphis, while deploying fewer officers relative to population. Some cities spend more: Charlotte, for example, has allocated more than 40 percent of its 2023 budget to policing, but also saw around a third of Memphis’s murder and violent-crime rates.These examples show that with careful strategy and spending, cities can achieve reductions in crime. In particular, studies have found that “hot-spot” policing—concentrating officers in particular areas—can drive crime down, at least in those immediate areas and sometimes more broadly. A recent study found that increases in the size of a big-city police department are correlated with declining homicide rates, though the effect in southern cities with large Black populations, like Memphis, might be smaller. The downside is that larger police forces tend to also make larger numbers of petty arrests. In a separate study, scholars found that “the size of a city’s police budget and the size of its police force both strongly predicted how many arrests its officers made for things like loitering, trespassing, and drug possession.” In practice, that means more Black men moving through the criminal-justice system.
In Shelby County, that would mean more Black men going to court and jail simply possessing a firearm without a license; something that wouldn’t be a crime at all in Tennessee’s other 94 counties.
Sen. Lamar’s proposal isn’t even a legislative band-aid. It’s a placebo pill to treat a gaping chest wound. A record number of Memphis residents are being murdered and his solution is to put a new misdemeanor criminal offense in place; one that mirrors a misdemeanor that was on the books when the city saw 333 homicides just two years ago? Honestly, if I lived in Memphis I’d be insulted by Lamar’s suggestion and the implication that he thinks his constituents are moronic enough to believe this would do any good.