Kentucky doesn’t have a ‘red flag’ law. Will a mass shooting in Louisville change that? | In-depth

Second Amendment

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — After last Monday’s mass shooting in downtown Louisville, Gov. Andy Beshear pushed for “conversations” about enacting laws that would let authorities remove firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. 

Kentucky is not among 19 states that have passed so-called “red flag” or “extreme risk” legislation, including the bordering states of Indiana, Illinois and Virginia. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has urged his state’s lawmakers to adopt a similar measure in the wake of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville in March.

Bills creating such laws have failed to gain traction in the Kentucky General Assembly in recent years, even with bipartisan sponsorship, the backing of mass shooting survivor Whitney Austin and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s support of a bill providing funding to states that approve the laws.

Beshear didn’t say he would make a fresh push for new legislation in Kentucky’s GOP-dominated legislature in an interview with CNN, but he generally advocated for it, a position he took while running for governor in 2019.    

Louisville Shooting Presser - Gov Beshear - 4-11-2022 AP

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during a news conference in Louisville, Ky., Monday, April 10, 2023. A shooting at the Old National Bank killed and wounded several people police said. The suspected shooter was also dead. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

“In the past, I’ve been very clear that I believe we can respect and honor people’s Second Amendment rights to protect themselves and their family, but at the same time at least take a step so that we can intervene when we know somebody is about to go out and murder a whole bunch of people,” he said.

Beshear, a Democrat running for reelection, argued that “red flag” laws involve the court system and don’t run afoul of Second Amendment rights. At the same time, he acknowledged that the April 10 shooting still might have happened even if Kentucky had a law in place.

Connor Sturgeon, a 25-year-old Old National Bank employee, shot and killed five co-workers with an AR-15 that he purchased legally from a local gun dealer on April 6, according to police. After learning of a note left with his roommate, Sturgeon’s mother told a 911 dispatcher the morning of the shooting that her son “didn’t even own a gun.”

Sturgeon’s family has said he was in treatment working with a psychiatrist and a counselor for anxiety and depression issues. In a statement last week, the family said there were no “warning signs or indications he was capable of this shocking act.”

“I know people will say that wouldn’t have stopped this situation, and it probably wouldn’t have,” Beshear told CNN. “Maybe it will the next one. I don’t want another family to go through this.”

GOP gubernatorial candidates respond

After Beshear’s remarks, WDRB News surveyed the top six candidates in the Republican primary for Kentucky governor who likely GOP voters said they’d vote for in the May primary, according to polling from the Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy firm.

Each candidate was asked, “Do you support the adoption of a ‘red flag’ law in Kentucky? Why or why not?” and offered a chance to be interviewed.

The campaigns of Attorney General Daniel Cameron and Eric Deters did not respond.

Kelly Craft, who served as ambassador to the United Nations under former President Donald Trump, did not answer the question. Instead, she issued a statement that read, in part: “We need to find real solutions instead of trying to score cheap political points with the usual buzzwords on the right and left that ultimately don’t lead to anything. …”

“As governor, I will uphold our second amendment rights,” Craft said. “We instead need to focus on the mental health of all Kentuckians. We must make certain that we remove the stigma surrounding mental health and ensure that there are resources for those who need them the most.”

Ryan Quarles, Kentucky’s agriculture commission, did not directly answer the question. He issued a statement that said: “As a supporter of the Second Amendment and a gun owner myself, we need to invest in mental health resources like ‘Raising Hope’ that my office started years ago. I firmly believe that no Kentuckian should be deprived of the due process afforded to all of us under the US Constitution. Any policy that is considered needs to respect our individual rights, freedoms, and liberties.”

Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Mike Harmon directly opposed any possible new legislation, saying said in a statement that “I do not support ‘red flag’ laws as they can at times be used to take guns from innocent people just trying to defend themselves and their families.” He also called for a “serious conversation about mental illness and a crisis of faith and family.”

Alan Keck, the mayor of Somerset, said in an interview that he doesn’t support creating “red flag” laws. “I think what that does is, it might eliminate a weapon, but it doesn’t solve the root of the problem,” he said. “If we take somebody’s constitutional right, which is the right to bear arms, and we still leave them in society without getting them the help that they need they’re still going to be a risk to society.”

Instead of enacting new laws, Keck said he backs expanding mental health services for people who need them.

Indiana among states with law

The nonprofit group Everytown for Gun Safety, created by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, contends that what it calls “extreme risk” laws in 19 states and Washington, D.C., help prevent suicides and fatal shootings by addressing early warning signs.  

Everytown data show that 20,440 such petitions were filed between 1999 and 2021, with more than 90% filed since a 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead. Florida passed its law a month after the shooting.

But a 2022 analysis by the Associated Press found that many states with the laws barely use them, with some experts arguing that the number of cases nationwide are not nearly enough to curb gun violence. 

States with 'red flag' laws

States with ‘red flag’ laws (courtesy: Everytown Research & Policy)

Indiana lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to pass its version of the law in 2005 following the death of Indianapolis Police Officer Jake Laird the year before. Laird was killed after a man with a history of mental illness went on a shooting rampage months after officers had confiscated — and later were forced to return — his weapons, according to the Indianapolis Star.

The bill, known as the “Jake Laird Law,” sailed through the legislature on votes of 100-0 in the House of Representatives and 48-1 in the Senate.

The law lets police seek court-ordered warrants to take firearms from anyone who officers believe to be at “imminent risk of personal injury to the person or to another person.” The weapons must be returned in two weeks unless a judge finds that person is dangerous. After 180 days, the person can ask a court to give back those guns.

Everytown reports that Indiana had 482 petitions under the law in 2021, the most recent year with available data, while nearly half of the state’s 92 counties had at least one request to seize weapons between 2018 and 2021.

A 2019 study of the Indiana law concluded that it is being applied to a “high-risk” population and calculated that one person was saved from a potential suicide for every 10 actions to remove guns.

Jeremy Mull

Clark County (Indiana) Prosecutor Jeremy Mull

In Clark County, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said authorities have used the law to take weapons from people who have threatened workplace shootings and those who are likely suffering from mental illness. Mull didn’t immediately have data on petitions in his county.

“This ‘red flag’ law in Indiana has been tremendously effective, in my opinion, in preventing incidents of gun violence in Clark County,” Mull said. “I receive regularly requests to file these ‘red flag’ actions and I do file them.”

In 2019, Mull testified before a Kentucky legislative committee advocating for similar laws. He told WDRB last week that not having one in Kentucky “endangers all the communities in an area where there might be people who have severe mental illness and are dangerous, where there are no ways to prevent them from having deadly weapons.”

Bills in Kentucky have failed

Mull joined Austin, who was shot 12 times during a mass shooting at Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati in 2018, and others to push for red flag laws in Frankfort in November 2019. Since then, at least three bills have been introduced but haven’t advanced.

A measure backed by two former senators — Republican Paul Hornback and Democrat Morgan McGarvey — was filed in 2021 but was never assigned to a committee. McGarvey, now a U.S. representative from Louisville, filed a similar bill in 2022. It died in a committee.

McGarvey said in an interview that the legislation would have addressed issues relating to gun violence and mental health.

“A crisis aversion and rights retention law marries those two aspects where it allows law enforcement to temporarily remove a firearm from someone who’s truly in crisis and an imminent danger to themselves or others,” he said.


FRANKFORT, January 20, — Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville (right), speaks with Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, in the Senate. Image courtesy LRC Public Information

Hornback, who did not seek reelection in 2022, said in an interview that as “a very conservative Republican, I knew what I was up against” in light of the influence of the National Rifle Association on members of his party.

“NRA is a very big contributor financially to all the members House and Senate,” Hornback said. “So it’s always going to be a steep hill to climb, because, quite frankly, on most issues in Frankfort, money drives it.”

Meanwhile, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action said in a news release last week that it opposes “red flag” laws and believes they are unconstitutional.

The bills backed by Hornback and McGarvey would have let police seek a “crisis aversion and rights retention” order from a judge when an officer believes someone poses an “immediate and present danger” himself or others.

Any weapons would be seized until a hearing in two weeks. Anyone filing a false petition to harass someone accused of being a threat would face up to a year in jail.

Hornback took issue with those who believe the laws violate the Second Amendment, saying his legislation included due process.

“We’re not going to stop them all and understand that, and the legislation I have is not perfect,” he said. “But, you know, we can do something to help.”

State Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville), the House Majority Whip, said lawmakers have discussed possible legislation following the shooting at Old National Bank but he doesn’t believe Republicans in the House would support any measure that lets weapons be seized without the owner knowing about the effort to take them.

That’s a key difference from the previous bills in the Senate, which allow for the initial judge’s ruling without having to notify the owner of the petition.

“What I don’t think there’s an appetite for it for allowing somebody to make a petition against someone that that person doesn’t know about,” Nemes said. “And then, all of a sudden, they lose a constitutional right, like the right to bear arms.”

Austin said her organization, Whitney/Strong, which backs policies to prevent shootings, “continues to work with Kentucky lawmakers in both parties on solutions to gun violence – including Crisis Aversion and Rights Retention (CARR) and others,” she said in a statement.

“We’ve found common ground in the past, and we remain hopeful we’ll do so again in the near future.”

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