LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Struck by tragedy when one of his closest friends died in a mass shooting, Kentucky's Democratic governor supports a proposal meant to keep firearms away from people deemed as threats to themselves or others. His Republican challenger offers condolences for his rival's loss but opposes the measure.
In one of the most personal exchanges of their campaign for governor, Gov. Andy Beshear, D-Ky., and Attorney General Daniel Cameron, R-Ky., staked out their stands on gun policy during a recent debate in Louisville. It's a wrenching issue in Kentucky's largest city, which has recorded at least 100 homicides in each of the last four years including 2023, with a high mark of 174 killings in 2021, and has struggled to come to terms with gun violence.
The hometown of boxing great and global humanitarian Muhammad Ali has coped with tragedy repeatedly in recent years, notably when Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in 2020 during a botched police raid at her home. During one of the ensuing protests that year, a Louisville restaurant owner, David McAtee, was shot to death during an exchange of gunfire on his own property as law enforcement officers moved aggressively to enforce a curfew.
The city's current mayor had his own brush with gun violence, escaping unharmed when a gunman opened fire at his campaign office last year. Then in April of 2023, a man killed five coworkers at a Louisville bank before police fatally shot him. Bank executive Tommy Elliott, a mentor and longtime friend of Beshear, was among the victims.
Statewide politicians tread cautiously on gun issues in the Bluegrass State, where support for gun rights is seen as “almost the third rail of Kentucky politics," said longtime political commentator Al Cross.
During the recent televised debate, Beshear and Cameron declared their support for the Second Amendment. But they disagreed about the need for legislation designed to prevent people who might hurt themselves or others from acquiring firearms — commonly known as “red flag” laws.
Beshear, who is seeking reelection to a second term in the Nov. 7 election, made his case for the law in personal terms, as he did in the days after Elliott's death at Old National Bank in downtown Louisville.
"Everyone should be able to defend themselves and their family,” Beshear said during the debate. “But I’ve now understood, seen and felt what it’s like to lose someone you love and care about in this city to gun violence.”
Cameron said his “heart goes out” to the governor for losing a dear friend — offering a brief pause from his unrelenting criticism of the incumbent throughout what has been a testy campaign. But Cameron flatly rejected the need for such a law and said Beshear had put “qualifications” on his support for the Second Amendment.
“We don’t need ‘red flag’ laws here in Kentucky," Cameron said. "We need to make sure that we look out and support the Second Amendment, and I will certainly ensure that.”
Red flag proposals have been floated in the past in Kentucky. In 2019, a bipartisan trio of state lawmakers proposed allowing courts to issue temporary orders barring someone from possessing guns based on some showing of imminent danger. The proposal made no headway in Kentucky's Republican-dominated legislature, which instead has relaxed gun laws in recent years.
The exchange at the debate took place before a mass shooting in Maine on Wednesday night, though that tragedy could add to the intensity of the policy disagreement.
Nationally, 21 states have similar laws on the books — with many lawmakers enacting them after tragedies. Florida did so after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people. Law enforcement officials had received numerous complaints about the gunman’s threatening statements.
In Louisville, the man who opened fire at the bank last April had wrestled with mental health problems, but the situation appeared to be managed until days before the shooting, according to his mother. Police said the 25-year-old man bought the AR-15 assault-style rifle used in the attack at a local dealership, several days before the shooting. He killed his coworkers while livestreaming the attack before police fatally shot him. The wounded included a police officer who was shot in the head. He was discharged from the hospital in July after enduring multiple surgeries.
In promoting a red flag law for the Bluegrass State, Beshear said: “All that does is trust our law enforcement to step in when they know someone is about to commit an atrocity, is about to murder a bunch of people, and go to the court and get some help. We trust our courts with custody of our kids. Surely we can trust them to balance our Second Amendment and prevent murders.”
Cameron nudged the discussion toward his public safety plan, which includes awarding recruitment and retention bonuses to bolster police forces and installing a state police post in Louisville to augment the metro police. Beshear, a former attorney general, has proposed another round of pay raises for state troopers and support for more law enforcement training in his plan to bolster public safety.
Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg says the shooting at his campaign office — when a bullet grazed his sweater — has bolstered his resolve to tackle gun violence. He has urged state lawmakers to give the city more authority to set its own gun policies. That includes taking weapons used during crimes out of circulation. A Kentucky law sends guns confiscated by police to auction, with the proceeds used to buy law enforcement equipment. Greenberg has been critical of the law.
During the debate, Cameron sidestepped the broader issue of what to do with such guns. Beshear supported taking murder weapons out of circulation, calling it a matter of showing empathy for families that lost loved ones to gun violence.
“You can support the Second Amendment and have enough care for people to understand how much they may be hurting, to say let’s not auction that weapon off," the governor said.