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Here’s what hurts the most

How many Kentucky lives might be saved but for one missing trait in too many of our lawmakers: the courage to speak the truth.

Flowers rest on steps at a makeshift memorial for victims after the Old National mass shooting in Louisville in April 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer)

On Feb. 9, Sen. Matthew Deneen (R-Hardin) sent out a press release that began, “It’s an unfortunate time here in the commonwealth as we must address a pressing issue, and that is gun violence …”

Yes! I wanted to scream. Finally!

But Deneen was not talking about the epidemic of gun violence that ends hundreds of Kentucky lives every year, shattering our families and our communities. He was hawking one specific bill — Senate Bill 20 — like a carnival barker, addressing “gun violence being committed by juveniles,” even though anyone who is remotely sentient, conscious, or half-sober and awake knows juveniles are not the only perpetrators of gun violence in Kentucky.

Six days after Deneen’s press release, I was at the capitol with Moms Demand Action to meet with lawmakers about gun violence and a number of potential bills, including CARR (Crisis Aversion and Rights Retention), safe storage, etc.

I knew that Moms had requested a meeting with Deneen, so I checked the official notes:  “Response to email sent on 1/29 stated that Senator Deneen didn’t have any time in his schedule to meet with Moms group.” 

The senator didn’t have time.

The dunderheaded irony of a state senator so het up about gun violence perpetrated by juveniles that he has no interest in meeting with moms who have raised … checks notes … juveniles. 

But I digress, and I have a confession to make. 

The most frustrating thing about meeting with Republican lawmakers to discuss gun violence is not the men (and they are mostly men) who are rude and dismissive, or who seemingly enjoy wrestling you, an unpaid volunteer mom, down to the mat with circular KRS language and legalese.

No. It is the Republican lawmaker who agrees with you that hurts the most. The one who says, you’re right, but I can’t help you or I’ll lose my seat. The one who says, I’m on your side but please keep that confidential. The one who lacks the courage to say what he really thinks to his constituents, even if that something could save their lives. The one who says, I have this problem in my own family but voting for a bill like this would kill me politically. 

Kill me. 

Interesting word choice.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R-Fruit Hill) has filed Senate Bill 13, commonly called the CARR bill for Crisis Aversion and Rights Retention, specifically addressing mental health and access to firearms.

Isn’t that the conservative talking point after every mass shooting? That it’s not the guns, that what we need to address is mental health?

In a few short weeks, we will mark the one year anniversary of the Old National Bank mass shooting in Louisville. The day before he killed five people and injured several others, the shooter wrote, “OH MY GOD THIS IS SO EASY. Seriously, I knew it would be doable but this is ridiculous. Walked in and bought a gun, 4 mags, and 120 rounds for $700. Got some glasses and earplugs…” He fired more than 40 rounds in eight minutes. He used an RF-15 that he had bought just a few days before.

Westerfield filed SB 13 four weeks ago. As of this writing, SB 13 has not been assigned to a committee for a hearing.

Back on Sep. 26, 2023, Rep. Jason Nemes tweeted, “Let’s talk about guns. We have too much gun violence in Kentucky. If you commit a crime while unlawfully possessing a gun, under the Safer Kentucky Act you won’t be getting out on probation or parole.”

Yes! I remember thinking. We have too much gun violence in Kentucky. Let’s talk about guns.

Which leads me back to the opening words in Deneen’s press release. “It’s an unfortunate time here in the commonwealth as we must address a pressing issue, and that is gun violence …”

Is there no more creative or courageous argument other than to lock everybody up, including kids, for this “pressing issue”? And where are the arguments from lawmakers like Deneen and Nemes to stop gun violence **before** someone is shot to death, before it is too late?

Where is their public outcry, their press release, their support for bills like SB 13’s CARR to keep those who are suffering from a mental health crisis, like the shooter at Old National Bank, from having access to guns in the first place?

Six years ago, on Feb. 24, 2018, Nemes tweeted, “I’m for mandatory safe storage when loaded gun is accessible by kids; I’m for red-flag laws for domestic violence, hate crime convicts, relevant mental health issues; bump stocks should be regulated same as automatic since they are designed to artificially speed rate of fire 1/”.

This tweet was posted one month after the Marshall County High School shooting where a “15-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl died. Kentucky State Police said 20 people were affected by the shooting, 15 of whom suffered gunshot wounds. The victims ranged in age from 14 to 18 years.”

The General Assembly was in session in 2018 when the Marshall County High School shooting occurred. Old National Bank occurred days after the 2023 General Session ended. Which begs the question: Would lawmakers’ calls for action, for legislation, have been different if the bank shooting had happened during the 2023 General Assembly instead of after?

Where is the courage of that 2018 statement today?

How many Kentucky lives might be saved but for one missing trait in too many of our lawmakers: the courage to speak the truth.

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Teri Carter

Teri Carter writes about rural Kentucky politics for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Washington Post, and The Daily Yonder. She lives in Anderson County.

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