Time could be right for a special session to enact ‘red flag’ law in Kentucky

Beshear could seek a way to temporarily remove guns from those who are a danger to themselves or others. What has he got to lose?

April 17, 2023 5:40 am

Louisville’s interim police chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel embraces a mourner during a community vigil last week for those killed or injured in a mass shooting. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer)

On a CNN interview about last week’s mass shooting in Louisville, Gov. Andy Beshear talked about his support for a “red flag” law to remove guns from those who are a danger to themselves or others.

“It ensures that everybody’s rights are protected, that evidence is heard. It has every check on it that we could ask for,” he said.

Well, then, why not do something about it?

Beshear could call a special session to try to pass the law. A bipartisan proposal has been waiting for a hearing in the legislature for years, so no need to start from scratch. An influential GOP state senator suggests he is open to finding government solutions to gun violence. And a bipartisan federal law provides money to states setting up “red flag” laws.

That adds up to a political opportunity for a state with the 13th highest firearm mortality rate in the country.

Beshear — more mediator than activist — could prefer not to take on this challenge in an election year. But what has he got to lose? Those who insist on no gun restrictions likely won’t vote for him anyway. And he could attract more energized supporters, especially among younger voters.

Republicans would risk a backlash by refusing to work with Beshear on a reasonable measure that Republican U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell supports.

Even if the effort fails, it would have created “the conversation” on gun safety Beshear keeps saying he wants.

In the Louisville tragedy, a disgruntled employee opened fire in a downtown bank, killing five — including a Beshear close friend — and injuring eight. The 25-year-old shooter was killed by police.

It’s unclear if anyone knew his intentions in the days before. His mother called police after his roommate called her, but the massacre had already begun. She did not know he had bought an AR-15 rifle, news reports said.

A red-flag law probably “wouldn’t have stopped this situation,” Beshear said on CNN. “Maybe it will the next one. I don’t want another family to go through this.”

Whitney Austin, a mass-shooting victim and advocate for a “red flag” law to protect gun owners and others, spoke during Louisville’s community vigil last week. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer)

Top leaders of Kentucky’s GOP supermajority have responded little beyond “thoughts and prayers.” That contrasts with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, who lost a friend in the March 27 shooting that killed six in a Nashville Christian school. Lee signed an order toughening gun background checks and asked lawmakers for a red flag law in a month. He also suggested that Kentucky could benefit from one.

Lee’s response followed waves of citizen protests for gun regulation and an embarrassing effort by lawmakers to expel three Democrats who briefly joined the protests from the House floor. That overreaction backfired to the point where some positive action was necessary.

Slightly encouraging is a tweet from Senate Judiciary Chair Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville: “We’ve got to have conversations about what the government can do to protect against gun violence. Government cannot be the only solution, but it must be part of it. I don’t pretend to have a solution, but I’m willing to find one.”

Whitney Westerfield
Sen. Whitney Westerfield

This is no guarantee of negotiation. But at least he is not echoing National Rifle Association talking points. Just as important: He is not seeking reelection, allowing some freedom from party politics.

One proposal, the Crisis Aversion and Rights Retention Act, would allow police to seek an order to temporarily store guns or transfer them to a trusted person outside the household. If a judge approves, an evidentiary hearing is required within 14 days. After the individual is out of crisis and receiving support services, the court could return the weapons.

The idea — endorsed by groups on youth advocacy, family supports and mental-health services — is the brainchild of a Louisville woman who survived her own workplace shooting. Whitney Austin was shot 12 times at a Cincinnati bank in 2018. Four people died, including the shooter. After her recovery, the former bank executive set up the Whitney/Strong nonprofit on violence prevention and gun safety.

In media interviews about the Louisville shooting, Austin stressed the need for solutions: “This is not about divisiveness. This is not about guns are good, guns are bad. This is about finding where there is common ground and working together. I always have hope that change will come.”

Beshear doesn’t “want to give anybody false hope” about new gun-safety measures. Yet he seems to think that recounting the trauma of losing his friend could somehow become a catalyst for change.

Yet, his experience is not unique. Most Americans — 54 percent — say they or a family member have personal experience with some form of gun violence, according to a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

What are we going to do about it? That’s the question.

Gov. Beshear has led Kentucky with compassion and stability through difficult times — the pandemic, floods, and tornados. Yet there are times when citizens need a leader to show not just empathy but a steely fight.

Gov. Andy Beshear bows his head during a media briefing on April 10 after a mass shooting in Louisville. With him are Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg and Dr. Jason Smith of UofL Health. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

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Vanessa Gallman
Vanessa Gallman

Vanessa Gallman, a Kentucky Lantern freelance columnist, worked for more than two decades as editorial page editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader. She was also a local government editor for The Washington Post and a national correspondent for Knight-Ridder Inc.