If You Lose Your Gun Rights in Tennessee, You Loose Your Voting Rights, Too

Tennessee gun hand flag

Tennessee, which imposes notoriously demanding requirements on residents with felony records seeking restoration of their voting rights, recently added a new wrinkle: Before supplicants who have not managed to obtain a pardon are allowed to vote again, they have to successfully seek restoration of their gun rights, a task that is complicated by the interaction between state and federal law. Given the difficulty of obtaining relief from the federal gun ban for people convicted of crimes punishable by more than a year of incarceration, this requirement would be prohibitive in practice.

If it is upheld by Tennessee courts, the new policy would essentially mean “there’s no way to vote” for people who were disenfranchised based on their criminal records, says Adam Ginsburg, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), which has challenged Tennessee’s voting requirements in federal court. Even without the problem created by federal gun laws, CLC attorney Blair Bowie says, people convicted of drug felonies or violent crimes “will not be able to restore their gun rights” under Tennessee law. “It’s beyond the pale,” she says. But she adds that “it’s still an open question, because the Elections Division, which governs who can register to vote in Tennessee, clearly hasn’t really thought that through.”

Why is Tennessee making an arduous process even more difficult? According to a statement that Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins gave The Tennessean, the state’s Supreme Court “made it clear” in the 2023 case Falls v. Goins that “a felon must receive a pardon from the governor or other appropriate authority or have his or her full citizenship rights restored as part of the path to regain the right to vote.” Under the Tennessee Constitution, Goins said, “the right to bear arms is a right of citizenship.” Article I, Section 26 of the state constitution says “the citizens of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defense,” adding that the legislature nevertheless “shall have power, by law, to regulate the wearing of arms with a view to prevent crime.”

Since the right to arms is “a right of citizenship,” Goins said, it follows that anyone who is still legally barred from owning guns is not allowed to vote unless he obtains a pardon. That is a reversal of the position that state election officials were taking as recently as last December. When Goins was deposed in the CLC case on December 13, The Tennessean reports, “the Secretary of State’s office did not consider gun rights as part of the ‘full rights of citizenship’ necessary for voting.” A “training document” that Goins read during his deposition, which was still being used as of May 2022, included this clarification: “Gun rights are also a citizenship right, but they involve overlapping federal laws so it’s okay if those are not restored as long as the other citizenship rights are restored.”

Not anymore, according to Goins. And those “overlapping federal laws” pose a real problem for people convicted of the “infamous crimes” that trigger disenfranchisement in Tennessee. “Any felony” falls into that category, so it includes drug law violations and other nonviolent offenses as well as violent crimes. …

The best hope for people in this situation is that Tennessee courts will reject Goins’ interpretation of state law, at least insofar as it requires restoration of federal gun rights. “If somebody goes to court in Tennessee to get their citizenship rights restored,” Bowie says, “the judge can issue an opinion that could say something like, ‘We restore your gun rights under Tennessee law, any federal statutes notwithstanding.’ And then it’s totally possible that the Elections Division could say, ‘OK, that’s good enough.’ It’s just an open question what they’ll do.”

— Jacob Sullum in Tennessee Says Residents Can’t Vote if They Have Lost Their Gun Rights

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