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State, local officials in Louisville mull legislative response to mass shooting

 Lavel White at a vigil for the five people shot and killed Monday at Old National Bank.
Ryan Van Velzer
Lavel White, who said his sister was recently killed in a shooting, attended a vigil on April 12, 2023 for the five people shot and killed Old National Bank.

City and state officials in Louisville say they’re discussing a number of potential policy changes in response to last week’s mass shooting at Old National Bank.

The goal is to present a bipartisan set of proposals to state legislators that can help prevent future gun violence. One of the issues they’re considering is Kentucky’s preemptions law, which bars local governments from regulating guns and ammunition. Lawmakers are also looking at ways to prevent people experiencing a mental health crisis from obtaining a firearm.

For now, Mayor Craig Greenberg said the legislative response is being discussed in “private conversations.”

“But we need to turn private conversations into good public policy that will save lives, that will prevent future gun violence from happening in our city,” Greenberg said. “I’m committed to working collaboratively with people across Louisville, across Kentucky to make that happen.”

Greenberg said every official he spoke with after the bank shooting, Democrat or Republican, was “heartbroken” and motivated to address gun violence.

‘We have hamstrung local municipalities’

Just 24 hours after the Old National Bank shooting, in which five people were killed and eight more were injured, Greenberg stood before local and national media. He began by thanking Louisville Metro Police Officers Nickolas Wilt and Cory Galloway.

“[They were] two of the first officers to arrive on the scene to confront the assailant and to save lives,” he said.

About 15 minutes into the press conference, his tone changed. Greenberg noted the mass shooting brought Louisville’s death toll for the year to 40. Gun violence has caused nearly every murder this year.

“That level of gun violence is beyond horrific and it’s beyond anything we can and will accept in our community,” he said.

Greenberg called for immediate action to stem the violence. To do that, he said Louisville would need help from lawmakers in Frankfort and Washington, D.C.

“If you want to help our state’s largest city thrive, please give Louisville the autonomy to deal with our unique gun violence epidemic,” he pleaded.

By the end of the week, Greenberg was again addressing residents following a second mass shooting — this time in Chickasaw Park. Four people were injured in that shooting and two others were killed. One of the victims who died was 17 years old.

Greenberg and other Democratic leaders have lamented Kentucky’s preemption law in the days since the shooting. The law, passed in the 1980s and amended in 2012, makes it illegal for local governments to regulate the manufacturing, sale or ownership of firearms and ammunition. Officials can be arrested for violating it.

Kentucky is one of 42 states where local governments are heavily restricted in what kind of rules they can pass around guns.

Metro Council President Markus Winkler, a Democrat, said the state’s preemption law has hindered Louisville’s ability to address its gun violence crisis. Homicides spiked during the pandemic, with record numbers of murders in 2020 and 2021.

“The sad reality is we have hamstrung local municipalities’ ability to govern themselves,” Winkler said.

The District 17 representative said preemption keeps Louisville from enacting reforms, like universal background checks, that the vast majority of Americans support.

“People need to demand action at the level where these decisions actually get made, which is the state and federal levels,” Winkler said.

Democratic Council Member Pat Mulvihill of District 10 said he’d also like city officials to have more authority to take action against gun violence.

“It’s about time we do something, whether that’s banning assault rifles, banning piercing bullets, taxing bullets to the fullest extent we can,” he said. “Doing nothing has not led to any better results, it’s led to worse results.”

Kentucky’s law preempting local regulations on firearms doesn’t just apply to background checks or assault weapon bans.

Metro Council passed an ordinance earlier this year making it a misdemeanor to discharge a gun in a public right of way or near buildings. It was meant, in part, to punish celebratory gunfire on holidays. But even that has been challenged by local defense attorneys, according to Mulvihill.

“At this point it’s just being challenged in criminal cases,” he said. “I do understand that someone’s just trying to make the best legal arguments they can, but I just hope the law is on our side.”

‘Let’s debate it’

While the prospects for changing gun laws may seem dim in a deep red state like Kentucky, Louisville Republicans say they want to be part of the conversation.

District 19 Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini, who leads the Republican Caucus, said he and Greenberg have discussed putting together a group of state and local legislators to start “putting down on paper what can we get done, what’s realistic.”

Piagentini and other Republican leaders say there “should be no sacred cows” in debating how Louisville should respond to last week’s bank shooting and the ongoing gun violence crisis. But Piagentini said he’s skeptical the answer is as simple as more gun control.

“The truth of the matter is, this is shockingly complicated, which is why no one’s solved it yet,” he said.

Piagentini said, for him, the conversation has to include access to mental health resources.

“Of course we should be discussing access to guns and what that means, et cetera., but it’s got to include mental health, emergency mental health support and services,” he said.

Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville told LPM News Piagentini contacted him about participating in the talks. Nemes said he’s open to hearing arguments about local control. He also wants to look at ways officials might be able to prevent people experiencing a mental health crisis from accessing deadly weapons, otherwise known as a “red flag” law.

“As long as the person who the allegations are made against has notice of the allegations and the opportunity to defend himself before he loses his constitutional rights, I think that’s something that’s worth strong consideration and discussion,” Nemes said.

Republican state Rep. Kevin Bratcher, who represents parts of southeast Jefferson County, said he’s also open to discussing a red flag law. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, also supports the move.

In an interview Friday, just before attending the first funerals for the bank shooting victims, Greenberg said his “hope and belief right now” is that officials from both parties believe doing nothing is no longer a viable option.

“We do not have any more days or months to spare,” he said. “We shouldn’t wait for the next tragedy. Let’s act now.”

Greenberg said he remains hopeful that the tragedy that already occurred last week at Old National Bank can lead to real change.

Danielle Kaye contributed reporting to this story.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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