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Pepper Balls Downtown, Live Rounds In West End? Why National Guard Was Armed

The National Guard showed up during protests in downtown Louisville on May 30, 2020.
The National Guard showed up during protests in downtown Louisville on May 30, 2020.

On Monday morning, in the wake of law enforcement fatally shooting David McAtee, there was a common refrain among mourners: why are they using pepper balls downtown and real bullets in the West End?

Officials said the 400 Kentucky National Guardmembers deployed to Louisville are authorized to fire lethal weapons, like the ones that were fired upon David McAtee early Monday morning, when faced with an immediate threat. Though the CAR-15 carried by guardsmen are generally not loaded, members do carry ammunition. 

“Weapons that the Guardsmen are carrying are in self defense of imminent danger of life, limb or eyesight,” Maj. Stephen Martin, the director of the Kentucky National Guard’s Public Affairs Office said.

Martin said he would need to confirm whether the Guard members are also equipped with the non-lethal weapons carried and utilized by other law enforcement in Louisville.

The mayor extended the city's curfew through June 8, raising the possibility the National Guard may be in the city through the week.

Until Sunday night, non-lethal weapons such as teargas and pepper balls were used in response to protesters throughout the city, though LMPD officers are armed as usual. On Saturday night, when several shots were fired at LMPD officers during a protest at Ninth Street and Broadway, the officers did not return fire and used non-lethal weapons.

That changed when members of the Louisville Metro Police Department and Kentucky National Guard shot and killed David McAtee outside a gas station at 26th and Broadway. Two Louisville officers and two National Guard members fired.

Officials including Gov. Andy Beshear and LMPD have said that law enforcement was fired on first. It’s unclear who might have fired, but no officials have suggested it had anything to do with McAtee, 53, who sold barbecue at the intersection. Mayor Greg Fischer described McAtee as a person who “got caught up” in the shooting.

LMPD’s body cameras were not turned on, a realization that led Fischer to fire the police chief and the acting chief to promise discipline, and that means no official footage is available showing exactly what occurred. Facebook live footage from the scene and audio show a single shot fired before LMPD and National Guard open fire. 

“My understanding, at least by protocol is that showing up at the scene, they are not loaded and after the shooting occurred in order to protect themselves and address the situation, that's the point when that happened,” Beshear said in a press conference on June 1.

Brigadier General Hal Lamberton, Adjutant General of the Kentucky National Guard, said in the same press conference that most of the members of the guard currently deployed to Louisville are part of the National Guard Reaction Force, which undergoes training and weapons requirements specific to the assignment of dealing with civil unrest. KyCIR has asked for more details on those training requirements, but the National Guard has not yet responded.

About17,000 national guard troops have been deployed to 23 states and the District of Columbia in response to this weekend’s unrest, according to the Military Times. In Minnesota, the Adjutant General for Minnesota’s National Guard told reporters troops were carrying rifles, sidearms and ammunition after the FBI reported a “credible threat” made directly towards Guard members.

This story has been corrected to note the number of National Guard members who fired their weapons.

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.

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