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Kentucky lawmakers and advocates push for law to remove guns from people in crisis

Gov. Andy Beshear speaks at a vigil on April 12 for the victims of the mass shooting at Old National Bank in Louisville.
Sylvia Goodman
Gov. Andy Beshear speaks at a vigil on April 12 for the victims of the mass shooting at Old National Bank in Louisville.

In the wake of the mass shooting in Louisville, some Kentucky lawmakers are calling for short-term policy solutions to curb gun violence. Proposals that would allow the temporary confiscation of guns from people in crisis have taken center stage.

With the investigation into Louisville’s mass shooting still ongoing, Louisville Metro Police have so far declined to attribute a motive, provide details of the shooter’s plans for the attack or indicate if other people knew about his mental state.

But the horrific episode is prompting civic leaders and citizens to look for ways to curb gun violence, and to once again push for a law in Kentucky that would allow police to ask a court to temporarily confiscate weapons from someone deemed to be a danger to themself or others.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear called on state lawmakers to pass such a measure, often called a “red flag” law, in the wake of the shooting. Louisville Democratic state Rep. Keturah Herron renewed her support for Kentucky’s version of the proposal, dubbed the Crisis Aversion and Rights Retention act, or CARR, which has languished in the Legislature for years.

The proposal would allow law enforcement officers to petition a court to temporarily take away someone’s firearms, and allow a judge to do so if they have a "reasonable belief" that there is an "immediate and present danger of causing serious physical injury to self or others" if they possess a gun.

Herron said the proposal would “prohibit and stop some types of casualties from happening.”

Louisville Democratic state Rep. Daniel Grossberg said passing the measure would be an important starting point for further gun safety legislation, and he’s urging his colleagues to join him in pushing for a special legislative session to consider a gun safety agenda.

Democratic Congressman Morgan McGarvey, who represents Louisville, also publicly voiced his support for the measure at a press conference on Tuesday – the day after the shooting. While serving in the state Senate in 2019, McGarvey was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing for this type of legislation.

Back then, the proposal received little support besides Democrats and a small group of Republicans in the Legislature. But gun control advocate Whitney Austin, a mass shooting survivor who has been a leader in the push to pass CARR, said she is continuing to work with Republican lawmakers to build more support for the bill ahead of next year’s session.

The only gun-related measure that passed out of the Kentucky Legislature this year attempts to embolden gun rights enthusiasts by creating a policy to punish police if they comply with federal restrictions of firearms, ammunition or accessories. Beshear allowed it to pass into law without his signature, though the measure might be short-lived after a similar law was struck down by a federal court in Missouri.

Inching toward bipartisan support

Austin emphasized that CARR, while similar to “red flag” laws elsewhere, is tailored specifically to the Kentucky context. She said it centers gun owners and their rights – which makes it more palatable in a state where more than half of adults have firearms in or around their home.

“Whether this gun owner is facing a crisis of suicide, or a gun owner is facing a crisis of harming others, we don’t have a legal path to temporarily transfer that firearm … and get them to the help they need to go back to a place in which gun ownership is safe,” Austin said. “That’s the premise of CARR: let’s help gun owners in their moment of crisis.”

Austin said she prefers referring to the legislation as CARR because of negative connotations associated with the term “red flag.”

CARR, unlike similar measures in some other states, limits who has the authority to petition a court to confiscate someone’s firearm. This Kentucky bill only grants law enforcement officers this power – it excludes friends, family and other individuals, like school administrators. Austin said this provision gives the bill more bipartisan appeal.

Louisville Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes said he would consider supporting the issue in Kentucky, as long as “we can protect the rights of citizens.”

He said some Republicans fear gun owners will not receive notice before their guns are confiscated – or that a gun owner would not be able to defend themself against attempts to confiscate their guns.

“Fundamentally, we can’t allow somebody’s constitutional right to be taken away without them being able to defend themself,” Nemes said.

But Nemes did stress the importance of bipartisan cooperation to work through the details of how to temporarily confiscate firearms. He said conversations are still in their initial stages, but there’s an eagerness – among Republicans, too – to “get something done that actually matters.”

Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Fruit Hill and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated on Twitter that he was willing to have “conversations” about the government’s role in gun safety in the wake of the Louisville shooting, though he didn’t specifically mention proposals like CARR.

Melissa Merry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville who studies narratives of gun control, said arguments against “red flag” laws among Republicans tend to center on the belief that these laws infringe upon their Second Amendment rights. Conservatives, she said, often express concern that firearms might be taken away from them in cases where it’s unjustified.

How effective are “red flag” laws?

Measures like CARR, also called “extreme risk protection orders,” are a relatively new legal tool. The first such law was enacted in Connecticut in 1999 in response to a mass shooting there – and there are ongoing debates about how effective these laws actually are in preventing gun violence the states where they’re on the books.

Some studies do link firearm seizure laws to a reduction in suicides. A study that looked specifically at Connecticut’s law found that approximately one suicide was averted for every 10 to 11 gun seizure cases.

Jeffrey Swanson, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine and co-author of that study, said restricting people’s access to guns when they’re suicidal does save lives.

He said less is known about how well these measures work to prevent mass shootings. But he said he’s currently involved in a study that shows 10% of cases in which the laws were invoked were in response to a threat of a mass shooting.

“Red flag laws are a piece in the puzzle of gun violence prevention in the United States – it’s not the panacea,” Swanson said. “This is one of the few – almost the only – regulatory response to the gun violence problem in the United States that has broad support among the general public across the political spectrum, and among gun owners.”

Implementation of gun confiscation laws is often a challenge, due to a lack of protocols or resources. A federal bipartisan gun safety bill signed last year – the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in nearly 30 years – includes funding to help states implement “red flag” laws.

Advocates say even in states that have implemented the measures, they aren’t being used aggressively because law enforcement agencies don’t pursue court orders, and there isn’t enough public awareness about the laws.

Swanson said this federal funding could make a difference in improving implementation, including law enforcement training and public awareness campaigns.

Merry stressed that it’s difficult to determine with certainty how effective “red flag” laws are, across the states where they’re in effect. But, she said, there is still ample evidence showing these laws have been invoked to prevent violence.

“The fact of the matter is, ‘red flag’ laws aren’t going to prevent every act of violence. But they could potentially make a difference in some cases,” Merry said.

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