Illegal gun use is making Kentucky more deadly; red flag laws could save lives here

By Vanessa Gallman (Kentucky Lantern)

A Lexington wife and mother was killed in her home Nov. 23 — three days after a judge rejected an emergency protective order that police encouraged her to seek. The ruling: “No imminent threat.”

The man she was divorcing called police to report he had shot her. Convicted of a past drug felony, he wasn’t supposed to possess a gun. And he had a history of domestic abuse with another woman. In news reports, court officials said the woman should have put all his history into her request. Yet a victim often doesn’t know an abuser’s full criminal history, which police and court officials can easily discover.

This tragedy is a case where “red flag” laws — allowing removal of firearms from those who are a danger to themselves or others — might have saved a life. Under these laws, now in 19 states and the District of Columbia, police and sometimes family members can request a court order to prevent murders, suicides, or mass shootings. In Kentucky, a person under an emergency protective order can keep guns and ammunition.

Abusers with firearms are five times more likely to kill their victims, according to the Kentucky Coalition on Domestic Violence, which supports gun-removal laws “to prevent future tragedies from occurring while preserving the lawful use of firearms for sport and personal protection.”

Both Gov. Andy Beshear and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell support such laws, most of which passed after the 2018 massacre at a Florida high school. In Kentucky, a bipartisan bill for temporary removal of guns has been stalled in recent years but is to be refiled in the upcoming legislative session.

Whitney Austin
 Whitney Austin, head of the nonprofit Whitney/Strong, supports a red flag law for Kentucky to temporarily remove guns from people experiencing a mental crisis.

We are on the side of supporting and protecting the Second Amendment. Gun owners have crisis moments like anybody else. We want them safe and protected.

– Whitney Austin, mass shooting survivor and head of Whitney/Strong

Meanwhile, the Beshear administration should seek funding under the new Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which includes $750 million in grants to set up red-flag laws or other gun-removal strategies in closely supervised drug courts and mental-health courts.

Kentucky is undeniably a pro-gun state: A 2019 law allowed people to carry a concealed gun without getting a permit or completing a background check and safety training. But it makes no sense to ignore the realities of how illegal gun use is making the state more deadly:

  • The firearm mortality rate is the 13th highest in the nation at 20.1 deaths for every 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • At least 902 people died from firearm injury in 2020, up from 694 in 2015.
  • Of firearm deaths, 63% are suicides; and guns are the leading cause of death among Kentucky children and teens, according to
  • This year, the state has had nine mass shootings — where four or more people have been injured or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive. That compares to three in 2021.

A Louisville wife and mother, who was seriously wounded in a mass shooting, is the primary force behind the bill for temporary removal of guns from those in crisis.

Whitney Austin was shot 12 times in a 2018 shooting at a Cincinnati bank. Four people died, including the shooter. After her recovery, she set up a nonprofit, Whitney/Strong. It works closely with Sandy Hook Promise, a national gun-safety organization formed after the 2012 massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.

Since 2019, Austin has proposed the Crisis Aversion and Rights Retention (CARR) bill, which would allow police to seek an order to temporarily store guns or transfer them to a trusted person outside the household. If a judge approves, an evidentiary hearing is required within 14 days. After the individual is out of crisis and receiving support services, the court could return the weapons.

The legislation has had bipartisan sponsorship and been endorsed by various organizations, including those dealing with youth advocacy, family supports, and mental-health services. New sponsors have not been announced to replace retired GOP Sen. Paul Hornback and Democratic Sen. Morgan McGarvey, who was elected to Congress.

Despite positive feedback from some lawmakers, the proposal has not been heard by the joint judiciary committee. “That’s the goal of 2023 — that we have a conversation,” said Austin. “I don’t know when it will pass. But I do know it will pass. We are on the side of the people.”

Austin, a gun owner herself, is especially concerned about suicides by firearms, which are higher in rural areas. Suicides are connected to mass shootings, she said. The shooters often seek “suicide by cop” or kill themselves after killing innocent people. “It really doesn’t matter how or when you were shot,” she said. “The experience of thinking your life is going to end is the same.”

The biggest obstacle facing CARR is the fear by some that removing guns — even temporarily from someone threatening harm — is a denial of every gun owner’s rights.

“We are on the side of supporting and protecting the Second Amendment,” said Austin. “Gun owners have crisis moments like anybody else. We want them safe and protected.”

Protecting citizens from needless injury and death requires Kentucky lawmakers to seek some balance between gun rights and public safety.

Vanessa Gallman, a Kentucky Lantern freelance columnist, worked for more than two decades as editorial page editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader. She was also a local government editor for The Washington Post and a national correspondent for Knight-Ridder Inc.

Top photo: Getty Images

Republished with permission from Kentucky Lantern under Creative Commons 4.0 License.