GOP candidates tread cautiously on gun issues in Kentucky

Apr 14, 2023, 9:22 AM

Republican gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron, right, speaks with voters after a campaign rally...

Republican gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron, right, speaks with voters after a campaign rally in Louisville, Ky., Wednesday, April 12, 2023. Cameron reaffirmed his support for gun rights in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Louisville. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

(AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Republicans running for governor have deflected questions about gun legislation since this week’s mass shooting at a Louisville bank, turning instead to prayer and a focus on mental health.

While GOP candidates were treading cautiously on a core issue for many Republican voters, professing strong support for gun rights, some prominent Democrats spoke forcefully for action after the shooting Monday in which a bank employee used an assault-style rifle to kill five coworkers. Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg implored state lawmakers to give his city — long plagued by gun violence — more authority to shape its gun policies.

“This is about life and death,” Greenberg said this week. “This is about preventing tragedies.”

Republicans running for governor, meanwhile, steered clear of a stand taken by GOP Gov. Bill Lee in neighboring Tennessee. Responding to the recent shooting deaths of three children and three adults at a Christian elementary school in Nashville, Lee called on his state’s GOP legislative majorities to pass a measure that would keep firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others.

Kentucky also has no such requirement, commonly known as a “red flag” law.

Asked if he would support such a measure for Kentucky, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Daniel Cameron said Wednesday: “You know I’m very strong on the Second Amendment. And obviously there will be a point where we have a discussion about if anything needs to be done.”

For now, the focus should be on the shooting victims, said Cameron, the state’s attorney general.

That same day, Kelly Craft, a chief rival for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Kentucky’s May 16 primary, declared: “I am not going to touch the Second Amendment.” Craft said the focus should be on bolstering mental health services — from schools to businesses.

“We need to make certain that there’s not a stigma around mental health,” Craft, a former United Nations ambassador under ex-President Donald Trump, told reporters at a campaign event in Elizabethtown. “That there are resources for every person in every corner of our state to have access to mental health” support.

State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, another GOP gubernatorial candidate, also emphasized investments in mental health services, pointing to a rural program he has championed. As for gun policies, anything considered “needs to respect our individual rights, freedoms and liberties,” he said.

Another gubernatorial hopeful, state Auditor Mike Harmon, opposes red flag laws, saying they “can at times be used to take guns from innocent people just trying to defend themselves and their families.”

Their comments reflected consistent stands by Republican majorities in advancing pro-gun policies in Kentucky’s Legislature. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a measure declaring the state a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” prohibiting local and state police from enforcing any federal firearm regulation banning guns, ammunition or firearm accessories that took effect in January 2021 after Democrat Joe Biden was sworn-in as president.

Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who counts himself as a strong Second Amendment supporter, spoke favorably of a red flag law. One of the governor’s closest friends was killed in the Monday bank shooting. Beshear is seeking reelection to a second term this year.

“I believe we can respect and honor people’s Second Amendment rights to protect themselves and their family, but at the same time at least take a step so that we can intervene when we know somebody is about to go out and murder a whole bunch of people,” the governor said in a CNN interview that aired Wednesday night.

Such measures have “every check on it that we could ask for,” Beshear said, noting the process involves the court system to ensure “everybody’s rights are protected, that evidence is heard.”

The governor also emphasized early intervention through mental health services.

“We’ve got to start making sure that people are getting help as they’re dealing with things long before it reaches this point,” he told CNN. “Because we always try to rewind time and figure out when we could have stepped in. Well, I think the answer ought to be as early as possible.”

Two proposals backed by Greenberg, the Louisville mayor, drew a sympathetic response from a fellow mayor who is running for governor. The request for more local control in setting gun policy is reasonable, said Republican candidate Alan Keck, mayor of Somerset in southern Kentucky,

“Government closest to the people is best,” Keck said. “Certainly what is needed in Louisville is often different than what is needed in Somerset.”

But Keck cautioned: “As local leaders, we must always be mindful of the U.S. Constitution and ensure the legislation we propose does not violate it.”

Keck said he agreed with Greenberg on changing a state law that now requires that seized guns used in violent crimes be auctioned to the public. Getting rid of such weapons would help “in bringing comfort and peace” to families who lost loved ones through violent crimes, Keck said.

Asked about allowing Louisville to enact its own gun measures, Cameron replied, “I don’t support gun control.” He gave a similar answer when asked about the proposal dealing with guns used in crimes.

Twelve candidates are competing for the state’s Republican nomination for governor.

One candidate, Eric Deters, said the solution includes more guns, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

“The solution for safety, to me, is we have to do better on mental health and we have to have the good guys with guns everywhere,” Deters said.

At a campaign rally Wednesday in suburban Louisville, Cameron led the audience in prayer — mentioning victims’ families, law enforcement and health care workers who treated the wounded.

Democratic leaders welcomed prayers following the tragedy, but U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey, who represents Louisville, said “we need to take this grief and turn it into action.”

“We need policies in place that will keep this from happening again,” McGarvey, a Democrat, said at a news conference. “So that ‘thoughts and prayers’ do not have to be offered to yet another community ripped apart by the savage violence coming from guns.”

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GOP candidates tread cautiously on gun issues in Kentucky