Some Kentucky Lawmakers Want To Tackle Gun Violence Through A Public Health Lens

Republican candidates for governor say Second Amendment must be protected.

Flowers rest on steps at a memorial for the Louisville mass shooting that happened earlier this week on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, at the Old National Bank in Louisville, Kentucky. Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer.
Flowers rest on steps at a memorial for the Louisville mass shooting that happened earlier this week on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, at the Old National Bank in Louisville, Kentucky. Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer.

This story is by the Kentucky Lantern, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. More of Kentucky Lantern’s work can be found at https://kentuckylantern.com. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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

LOUISVILLE – Nearly 100 Kentuckians have died from gunfire so far this year — and some lawmakers think a public health approach is the best way to halt the violence.

As of May 6, national nonprofit Gun Violence Archive showed Kentucky had 261 shootings in which 88 people died and 191 others were injured. (COVID-19 killed 354 Kentuckians this year as of May 4, state data shows).

In response to the gun violence, 16 Kentucky Democratic lawmakers proposed six policies that they believe could help.

The policies include red flag laws, legal responsibility to safely store a weapon, voluntary “do not sell” lists for suicidal individuals and more. They hope to bring forward legislation to match the policies next session.

The public impact of mass shootings:

Seven people died in two mass shootings in a single week in Louisville, which moved gun violence to center stage for many Kentuckians.

Rep. Nima Kulkarni (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)

 
“Mass shootings have a particular hold on our community, because often … they’re at public locations,” said Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville. “I think it’s just a question of how it impacts the community, how it publicly impacts the community and provides an opportunity, in essence, for the community to come together… in grief and in discussing the impact.”

It also matters who the victims are, fellow Louisville Democrat Rep. Keturah Herron said.

“Mostly the victims of gun violence (in Louisville) have been young Black men and boys, teenagers,” Herron said. “When you look at what happened at Old National Bank, it just hit a larger number of people and it hit individuals who normally … aren’t impacted.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2020 that white Kentuckians died by gunfire at a rate of 17.4 per 100,000 while that number was 47.6 for Black Kentuckians.

Overall, Kentucky had a higher rate of death by gunfire (20.1 per 100,000) than the nation (13.6 per 100,000).

“The public pays attention to a mass shooting in a different way,” said Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville. “And so it’s not that it’s inherently more tragic than any other kind of a loss to gun violence, but that while the community is paying attention, maybe we can actually move some of these initiatives that have been on the books for a while. It may be there’s more of a public outcry and really a demand for for those of us in Frankfort to do something.”

Rep. Lisa Willner LRC photo

Rep. Lisa Willner

 

‘My job is to put bodies back together.’

Among those calling on leadership to act is UoL Health chief medical officer and trauma surgeon Dr. Jason Smith.

Smith went viral after he pleaded with lawmakers to do something about gun violence following the Old National Bank shooting.

In Washington D.C. in late April, Smith joined the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force alongside Congressman Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, and others.

Smith has repeatedly said that while the mass shooting was traumatic, he sees many shootings outside of mass tragedies.

“Two weeks ago today I became the most recent addition to a horrible but growing cadre of surgeons nurses across this country that have had to respond to a mass shooting,” Smith said.

Each shooting is a “horrible and tragic event,” he added. “And it’s also one I see every single day in my hospital.”

Since Louisville’s mass shooting at the bank, he’s urged lawmakers to work together on solutions.

In addition to the toll deaths take, treating nonfatal gunshots is expensive.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2021 that treating gunshot wounds costs about $1 billion a year, according to 2016 and 2017 data.

The American Public Health Association says around 85,000 people are injured by guns every year and more than 38,000 people are killed.

UofL Health chief medical officer Dr. Jason Smith asked for lawmakers to do something about gun violence. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)

Gun violence, the APHA says, is “a major public health problem and a leading cause of premature death.”

Smith said that while he responded to the bank mass shooting, two other unrelated shooting victims came into the hospital for his help. Between the mass shootings that book-ended that week in early April, he treated 18 other gunshot wounds.

“I don’t know the solutions. … I’m a doctor. My job is to put bodies back together after these tragedies,” Smith said in D.C. this week. “I can’t heal the scars of the community. I can’t heal the spirit that is broken when this happens and I cannot bring back the losses that we suffer. But I can pray and ask all of you, no matter what side of this issue you are on, to step forward and begin to dialogue…”

The proposed policies:

The 16 Democrat representatives and senators want to see the following policies enacted in Kentucky:
  • Extreme risk protection orders – sometimes called “red flag laws” – that could temporarily restrict a person’s access to firearms if they are at immediate risk of harming others or themselves.
  • Establishing a statewide Office for Safer Communities that will receive funding to gather data on gun violence and make it widely available.
  • Let cities and counties regulate firearm and ammunition possession, transfer and transportation.
  • Require background checks with every private firearm purchase.
  • Allow people who are suicidal to voluntarily place their name on a “do not sell” list while they feel in danger of ending their life. This policy would also allow people to easily remove their name from the list once the danger is past.
  • Require safe storage of firearms within the home. This would hold gun owners legally and possibly criminally responsible if they failed to secure their gun and their child took it and committed a crime with it, for example.

The lawmakers who signed onto these ideas are:

  1. Representative Tina Bojanowski
  2. Senator Karen Berg
  3. Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong
  4. Representative Beverly Chester-Burton
  5. Representative Al Gentry
  6. Representative Daniel Grossberg
  7. Senator Denise Harper Angel
  8. Representative Keturah Herron
  9. Representative Nima Kulkarni
  10. Senator Gerald Neal
  11. Representative Josie Raymond
  12. Representative Rachel Roarx
  13. Representative Sarah Stalker
  14. Representative Pamela Stevenson
  15. Representative Lisa Willner
  16. Senator David Yates

Rep. Keturah Herron (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd).

Herron said the state needs to approach work on gun violence in much the same way as tobacco and COVID-19.

“Especially as far as suicides that we’re seeing in community, what does it look like to have some type of public health campaign, whether it’s PSAs or bulletin boards, or things at bus stops to help inform people what they can do, what are solutions other than taking their own lives, or other than using a gun,” she said.

Several Republican lawmakers, including legislative leaders, declined to speak with the Lantern  about the proposed Democratic policies. For decades, the trend in Kentucky’s legislature has been to loosen gun laws and regulations.

Republicans vying to be the next governor expressed opposition to gun control measures during the candidate debate on KET. Several, however, said it’s important to have conversations about mental health.

Candidate Kelly Craft told moderator Renee Shaw that “I’m not touching the Second Amendment and due process.”

“We need to make certain that we follow the rules that are currently written,” said Craft. “And we have to open the conversation of mental health, of mental illness.”

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles agreed, saying “we need to shift the focus to mental health.”

Fox News published poll results in late April that showed Americans support gun control measures: 87% of voters surveyed supported background checks for guns; 81% want enforcement of current gun laws; 81% want people to have to be 21 years old to buy any gun; 80% want required mental health checks; 80% want people at risk to themselves to be flagged as so; and 77% favored a waiting period when purchasing firearms.

Among Republican voters, Fox also found, 36% want to ban assault weapons; 61% want more citizens to carry guns.

The Pew Research Center reported in April that the majority of gun-related deaths are suicides.

PSAs and other education can be help address community violence, Herron said, and how folks talk about trauma and healing. That starts with data collection on gun violence in all 120 counties, she said.

“I don’t think that there’s just one solution,” she said. “I think that there’s going to be multiple solutions. But I think that if we leave out this public health component, I don’t think that any piece of legislation we pass … is going to be beneficial.”

Rep. Sarah Stalker, D-Louisville, said it’s important to create stable environments for communities as well.

“There are things we can do to respect people’s rights to own a gun,” she said, “But to have common sense laws to help protect people just like you would with anything.”

Attorney General Daniel Cameron, left, speaks to reporters with his wife, Makenze, after the KET debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

 
Candidate Quarles also said on KET that he believes there is a need for more gun safety training, but said the issue of lockboxes for guns falls under “personal decision for families.”

Candidate Alan Keck said keeping murder weapons from reuse is a potential “olive branch.” Kentucky law now requires that firearms confiscated by police be sold at public auction.

“I think it’s insane,” said Keck, “that those are being sold to the highest bidder… That should not be a showpiece. It’s a murder weapon and I can’t imagine that grieving family knowing that that gun is going to somebody else’s mantle.”

Frontrunner Daniel Cameron said he won’t “support any kind of gun control.”

“The Second Amendment,” he said, “is sacrosanct. we need to make sure that we protect it for Kentuckians all across the Commonwealth.”

Christopher 2X advocates against violence in Louisville. He said the recent mass shooting was “(a stark) reminder to me that there’s still this appetite to engage in reckless gunplay, whether that becomes just regular neighborhood shootings, domestic violence issues that lead to those kinds of tragedies or that mass shooting.”

“It’s just a reminder how the appetite is still alive and well,” he said.

2X runs a nonprofit called Game Changers that, through a variety of programs, “promotes early childhood education, parental involvement, mentoring, and community involvement to positively transform the lives of children and young people, end violence long term, and make communities safer in the Louisville area,” per its website.

Christopher 2X advocates against violence in Louisville

There’s no one answer to ending gun violence, he said. It’s going to take a lot of people and organizations working together.

“I don’t really form an opinion on ‘are more restrictive gun laws going to change anything in this city or any city across the United States and specifically in the state of Kentucky?’” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that. But … at the end of the day, it takes a combination of things.”

A lot of the solution goes back to ensuring kids can have healthier childhoods, 2X said, and stop seeing gun violence as an “attractive” route.

Does Kentucky need a special session to tackle gun violence?

The governor has the power to call a special session in Kentucky before the regular session next January.

Rep. Sarah Stalker, D-Louisville. (Photo by LRC Public Information)

Kulkarni, Herron, Stalker and Willner said there could be benefits to a special session to address gun violence.

But: they don’t want to see important legislation rushed.

“There’s an argument there for that being a catalyst to come up with something that can be agreed upon and act on it,” said Kulkarni. “But there’s also this danger of doing things not as deliberately and methodically and with all of the angles … considered. That is also a danger if there is a rush to a special session.”

Assuming there is no special session, in the roughly eight months until the next regular session, Kulkarni said, “it is incumbent on us as state lawmakers to keep focus and attention on the issue.”

Kulkarni said she looks at the policies suggested as a good meeting ground for both Democrats and Republicans, calling the measures “common sense.”

“I think that there’s also a group of folks on the other side,” Herron said, “who are not trying to make it political and want to get things done.”

Working together is what it will take, UofL’s Dr. Smith said in D.C. in April.

“This is not a ‘they’ problem. There is no ‘they’ in this. This is an ‘us’ problem,” Smith said. “Every community is going to be impacted by gun violence. I pray and hope it is not yours. But the simple statistics will tell you: it will be.”

First responders gathered the morning of April 10 in downtown Louisville near the scene of a mass shooting at Old National Bank near Slugger Field. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)