Mark Fields, owner of Kingsport Locksmith Service and City Lock Shop, studies a key. David Grace photo.
KINGSPORT — Want to be a locksmith in Tennessee?
All you need is $22 for a basic business license and an address. No criminal background check is required.
However, that’s about to change, thanks to Tennessee Public Chapter No. 526, for those worried about a convicted felon coming to replace their house locks or copy a car key.
Members of the East Tennessee Locksmiths’ Association said the new law is designed to protect consumers.
It originally was to require all locksmiths — even ETLA members like 15-year veteran Mike Fields, 31-year veteran Doug Wallace and 33-year veteran Henry Peters — to pass an exam, but it was changed to grandfather those who have been locksmiths for at least five years.
“It’s only going to help the locksmith industry and the general public,” said Fields, owner of Kingsport Locksmith and City Lock Shop in Kingsport. He is immediate past president and secretary and education director for ETLA.
The ETLA is an affiliate of the Associated Locksmiths of America, which through instruction and testing has designated Peters and Fields certified registered locksmiths and Wallace a certified master locksmith, the highest level. A certified registered locksmith is in between.
However, that is a voluntary program of the association. Under the new law, all locksmiths working in Tennessee will have to have Federal Bureau of Investigation criminal background checks, as well as carry a state-issued license and carry minimum liability insurance. Also, tow truck drivers who get people into their locked cars must have a background check under the law.
Other states requiring or to require locksmith licenses are Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.
Testing for the new Tennessee licenses will begin in January 2008 and the licenses are mandatory in July of that year, although neighboring Virginia has no such pending regulations. Violating the law, which allows home centers and businesses to provide basic key services and homeowners and contractors to install locks on their own property, carries a civil penalty of up to $5,000.
Peters, owner of White Knight Locksmith in Bloomingdale, said he and the other members of ETLA helped push the Tennessee licensing starting in 2001.
One reason is that the alarm industry got the law changed so a locksmith had to get an alarm license to install systems with multiple low-voltage electric locks.
But he said the main reason was to protect the public from unscrupulous and/or inept locksmiths.
“We want to get the quality of locksmithing up and the quality up of the people doing it,” Peters said.
He said a common scenario is for untrained people to be set up as locksmiths using residential addresses. A call to the “locksmith” gets a visit from someone who can’t pick the house lock, so the person instead drills it, requiring replacement.
Fields, president of the ETLA and owner of Tri-Cities Lock and Safe based in Bristol, Tenn., was a locksmith in northern Virginia until he came to the Tri-Cities three years ago. Once active in the Virginia locksmithing groups, he predicted Virginia and eventually all states would require locksmith licensing.
Wallace said the cost of the licensing will trickle down to consumers, just as the cost of “smart key” technology for vehicles does, but he said it’s cheaper to get a reputable locksmith to do the job right once than to get a botched job redone or lock replaced.
Currently, Fields said North Carolina and Tennessee do not plan to grant reciprocity, although he said that could change. He said Virginia locksmiths are supposed to get a Tennessee license if they work in Tennessee and are not eligible for the grandfather clause because they are out of state. ETLA has Virginia-based members.
“We want this to where they have a locksmith license and they know what they’re doing,” Peters said.
Peters said the fake locksmithing scam often targets the elderly, who are then talked into having all their locks changed, often at inflated prices.
The scam is popular in California, New York City but also has targeted consumers in Tennessee and Virginia. Fields said that Texas has the toughest locksmith laws, closely followed by California.
“You can bet one thing. I know what I’m doing or I won’t take the job,” Peters said. “I’ve been doing this 33 years and I cold write a good book on what I didn’t know.”
He and other members of the ETLA, are competitors but work together on some projects and often share know-how and tricks of the trade. Fields said the group has about 30 active members and a total of around 45. The group meets once a month for training and more often for informal dinners and discussions.
For more information on the local association, contact Wallace at (423) 279-0234, Peters at 288-6370 or Fields at 247-1077.