Republican backs bill to remove guns from Kentuckians at risk of hurting selves or others 

By: - December 15, 2023 2:17 pm

Whitney Westerfield (LRC Public Information)

This story mentions suicide. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

A Republican-backed draft bill aimed at temporarily removing firearms from Kentuckians at risk of harming themselves or others garnered mixed reactions from the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary Friday morning. 

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, will introduce t​he Crisis Aversion and Rights Retention Orders bill, or CARR, in the 2024 legislative session, which begins Jan. 2. He’s motivated by shootings that left children dead and people injured. 

“The law has to allow us to protect people,” Westerfield told his colleagues Friday.  

“I feel like it’s my obligation, and though I can’t speak for you, I believe it is your obligation, to not be afraid to have difficult conversations about the toughest issues that people of Kentucky face,” he said. 

The nonprofit Whitney Strong, which works to end gun violence, says CARR generally works like this: 

  • A concerned community member brings evidence about potential harm to one’s self or others, and law enforcement can then file a legal petition to remove that person’s guns temporarily 
  • A judge will “approve or deny the temporary transfer petition after conducting a strict, independent judicial review.” 
  • Should the judge decide to grant the petition, guns belonging to the person in question are handed over temporarily to law enforcement or “a trusted person outside of the owner’s household.” 
  • A hearing is then held to determine next steps, which may include “identifying opportunities for important support services for the individual in crisis.” 
  • Once the person is not in crisis, the guns are returned. 

It’s unclear what Kentucky’s specific legislation would look like. Westerfield is working on two draft options, he said, which may “change a lot.” 

What are the two CARR options now? 

One version of the bill includes the option for law enforcement to approach the person in question and tell them someone brought concerns forward about their safety or the safety of others. 

“It gives the respondent the option,” Westerfield explained. “You can have a hearing within X number of hours, near immediate. Keep your guns until then, not keep your guns — that’s up in the air. Or, you can give us your guns now, and we’ll have a hearing in a week.” 

“The respondent has the burden of defending that in that particular case,” he said. Timelines are adjustable, he added, since there may be practical problems getting a hearing so soon.  

This comes with other problems, too. 

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)

“If you tell someone that you fear has…a mental health issue, or a trauma, something that you’re worried they’re about to break, and then you don’t act with some near immediacy, you might actually provoke the act,” Westerfield said. “That’s the concern. And you’re balancing that risk and that concern with the Second Amendment right that they have and no one disputes that they have.”  

The second version includes an ex parte hearing, which means a hearing could happen without the gun owner in the room. 

This version “still has the law enforcement steps,” Westerfield said. “So, it’s not just anybody on a whim asking for a judge to get your guns. There has to be some articulated, specific reasons” for the move. 

Whitney Austin, who co-founded Whitney Strong after surviving a mass shooting in Cincinnati, told lawmakers that “we know that misuse of firearms is not tied to law-abiding, mentally well gun owners. CARR was not created for them.”  

She added: “CARR was created to surgically identify the small subset of gun owners, including those in lawful possession of a firearm, who are on the brink of misusing their guns to harm themselves or others.”

Sheila Schuster, a licensed psychologist and the Executive Director of the KY Mental Health Coalition, told the Lantern that she supports CARR. 

At the same time, “The truth is that people with a mental illness are 10 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than to be a perpetrator,” she said. 

“At the point that someone commits an act, particularly hurting someone else, it’s very likely that they are suffering with rage, with paranoia and in terms of feeling like somebody has done something to wrong them and they’re gonna (get) revenge,” Schuster explained. 

Additionally, Schuster said, suicidal people taking their lives happen at an “astronomical percentage higher if there’s a gun within reach than if there’s not.” 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 988. 

In a statement provided to lawmakers about the legislation, Schuster also said: “As a psychologist and mental health advocate, I am painfully aware of the stigma of mental illness and the confusion in the minds of many people that mass shooters are undoubtedly mentally ill. This is not the case and the CARR legislation does a very good job of not adding to nor reinforcing that false narrative.” 

Currently, Kentucky does have a statute that requires mental health professionals to warn potential victims if a client makes a threat to someone’s safety. 

Additionally, Kentuckians who are mentally ill and at risk of harming themselves or others and can benefit from treatment can be involuntarily hospitalized if that is “the least restrictive alternative mode of treatment presently available.” 

Richard Sanders, the Chief of Police in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, told lawmakers on behalf of CARR that police are “faced with things today that I’ve never seen before.”

“One of the biggest problems we face in law enforcement,” he said, “is people suffering from mental illness.”

Some people, he said, “shouldn’t have access to a weapon.”

‘Meaningfully different’ than ‘red flag’ laws 

Westerfield said the bill he will file is “meaningfully different in a couple of ways” from so-called “red flag” laws. 

“First of all, the timelines are shorter,” he said. “The burden of proof is going to be higher.” 

Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, reiterated her “long standing opposition to this proposal” and concern that it has the potential to violate constitutional rights such as due process and protection against government search and seizure. 

“When law enforcement comes to seize the firearms, do they automatically know where to find them?” she asked.  “Are they told where to find them? Do they dig through the entirety of the house?” She worries this could lead to a registry of some kind, she said. 

Westerfield said he isn’t proposing any kind of “search” or “ransacking of a home.” 

“I think it’s on the honor system,” he said. 

“We must fervently resist any effort to pass gun control legislation,” Maddox said. “And we must be serious about analyzing the data and putting a stop to these ineffective policies that put innocent citizens in harm’s way. And we have to encourage privately held entities to do the same.”

Rep. Pamela Stevenson, D-Louisville, said “with every right there’s a responsibility,” in comments supporting the measure.

“We’ve got to be brave enough,” she said, “to not let people just die nilly-willy.”

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Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky who's covered everything from crime to higher education. She spent nearly two years on the metro breaking news desk at The Courier Journal. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. As the Kentucky Lantern's health reporter, she focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, children's welfare, COVID-19 and more.

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