By Andrew Adler
The statistics speak volumes, and what they say is horrific:
Nine months into 2023, more than 110 people have been murdered and upward of 300 wounded within the city of Louisville by acts of gun violence. Others have taken their own lives, some implicitly aided by unsecured firearms in homes.
“These are not just numbers,” Mayor Craig Greenberg told listeners gathered for a Sept. 19 meeting of the Floyds Fork Democratic Club. “These are loved ones – sons, daughters, moms, fathers, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors.
“A good friend of mine was killed this year in the (April 10) Old National Bank shooting,” Greenberg said, referring to Senior Vice President Tommy Elliott. “You all probably know people who have been directly impacted by gun violence. It’s not just those 400-plus people that this year alone have already been impacted. It’s the thousands and thousands of people, friends and families of these victims, that are impacted by gun violence. It’s in our entire city.
“And so it is my absolute top priority to make sure that everyone in Louisville is safe and feels safe,” Greenberg said, “because everything else we’re talking about tonight, everything else that our administration is working on, is only possible if people are safe and feel safe. So we’re doing a lot of work on this.
Greenberg faces immense challenges. “Kentucky has some of the absolute worst gun laws in the country,” he told his Floyds Fork audience.
“Number one, we are prohibited here in our city from taking action to do things that we think will make our city safer when it comes to guns or ammunition or anything in between. Not only is it illegal, but I would be a criminal — Metro Council members would be criminals — for taking action to do things that are going to make our city safer as it relates to guns.”
Similarly, Greenberg said, “it’s crazy to think that the gun that was used to kill five people in the Old National Bank shooting and the gun that was used to kill two people a couple of weeks ago at two in the morning on the corner of Market and Third Street — that those weapons are required under state law to be turned over to the State Police, and they will in turn be auctioned off and back on the street.”
On these fronts, Frankfort’s political calculus is unlikely to change anytime soon. Even if Gov. Andy Beshear is reelected in November, he will again face a General Assembly with veto-proof supermajorities in both the House and Senate. Indeed, the trend is more toward expanding rather than restricting access to firearms. One example: The recent legislative session passed House Bill 153, which designated Kentucky as a so-called “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” prohibiting local and Kentucky State Police from enforcing federal firearms bans.
There is somewhat more hope for legislation requiring firearms in residences to be stored securely. And in Louisville, the city’s Office for Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods is applying a range of strategies – particularly those directed toward at-risk youth – to help stem gun violence before it starts. And it’s important to remember that in an average year in Kentucky, guns account for 61 percent of deaths by suicide.
Meanwhile, it’s falling to additional voices outside Frankfort to advocate for gun reform, and to remind people everywhere that gun violence – if not confronted head-on – is likely to become even deadlier in this place we call America.
Below are some of those voices, offering perspectives on the issue of gun violence: Kentucky State Senator Karen Berg; Farrah Alexander, co-chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s subcommittee on gun violence; and Chris Ashman, a member of the Louisville chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Shawn Morrow, Special Agent in Charge of the Louisville Field Division for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, will speak from the vantage point of firearms law enforcement. David L. Finke, CEO of Jewish Family & Career Services, will discuss the issue from the perspective of mental health. And Rose Smith, whose teenage son, Cory “Ace” Crowe, was shot to death in 2014 in a murder that nine years later remains unsolved – will talk about how she’s translated despair and loss into action and hope via The ACE Project.
State Senator Karen Berg, who represents Louisville’s 26th District, and a physician on the front lines of treating gunshot victims at University of Louisville Hospital
When it comes to possible measures to counter gun violence, the Republican-dominated Kentucky legislature has been conspicuously silent.
“I’ve been there for three years now, and there has not been a single committee meeting or presentation on the impact of gun violence,” says Louisville’s Democratic state senator.
Instead, “the most pressing issue in this state at this point, is to dismantle Jefferson County Public Schools for the safety of our children. “But not one discussion about their access to guns, about how guns are now the number one killer of our children in this country. It’s horrible.”
An emergency room diagnostic radiologist, Berg sees the issue of gun violence as both a legislator seeking to improve lives, and as a physician trying to save lives. Her imperative is simple, succinct, and stark.
“We have got to do something about the guns that are killing people in this state,” she says. “We need a more robust Pediatric Trauma network in the state because children are getting shot and we don’t have pediatric surgeons out in the state to respond to them. So the only way we can have any effort to keep these children alive, is to try to figure out how can we get them to a major medical center where somebody can actually operate on them.”
Even when a child makes it to the hospital, their gunshot wounds can be so grievous that even the most skilled surgeon is stymied.
“Bullets now do so much more damage to the body,” she says, “that destroy tissue and bone to such a degree that we have no hope of putting it back together. It’s not like you can oppose them (broken bones) and pray they’re going to heal. They’re in thousands of pieces – there’s nothing to reconstruct.”
For three years running Berg has sponsored or co-sponsored SB 168, which would “require the destruction of confiscated firearms.” And for three years running, that bill has failed to get even a single committee hearing.”
She believes that a so-called “red flag” law – which authorizes courts to temporarily remove firearms from an individual deemed to pose a danger to themselves or others – would be a valuable counterforce, as would requiring guns at home to be stored securely, out of reach of children. So would a mandatory 72-hour wait between purchasing and taking possession of a gun, where a cooling-off period would help deter impulsive suicides – in which guns are overwhelmingly the tool of deadly choice.
“States that have stronger gun control legislation,” Berg says, “have fewer gun deaths per capita.”
Her favored solution would be to require any gun owner to carry liability insurance. “You would have to be financially responsible for whatever harm your gun possibly does to somebody else.” But she acknowledges that — given current Republican supermajorities in both the Kentucky House and Senate — passing such a law is politically untenable.
Meanwhile, in a little more than a month there will be an election, pitting incumbent Democratic governor Andy Beshear against Republican attorney general David Cameron. It’s a contest, Berg emphasizes, in which the stakes are enormous.
“I have one message: Your vote matters,” she says. “If Cameron manages to get in, Kentucky will go dark for the next 20 years. We’ve got to keep Andy in office. Anybody in our community who doesn’t get out and vote is doing a tremendous disservice to our community.”
Farrah Alexander, co-chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s subcommittee on gun violence.
“What Matt (Golden, JCRC’s director) is wanting from this subcommittee is to allow members of the JCRC to be more proactive on certain issues,” Ashman explains, “and to give us an opportunity to engage in topics we’re passionate about. Gun violence is an issue that has been a priority for me, because I’m very concerned about the lives that we needlessly lose.”
Alexander, who’s in her third year of law school at the University of Louisville, is no neophyte regarding this issue. She’s a former communications director for Whitney/Strong, the gun violence organization named after founder Whitney Austin, a Louisvillian who was shot 12 times on Sept. 8, 2018, during a Cincinnati mass shooting.
Choose your battles wisely, Alexander advises.
“My personal philosophy on things like activism and social justice, is that there are many things that we all tend to care about, but we cannot effectively engage in at the same time,” she says. Advocating on behalf of Whitney/Strong became one of those foundational priorities.
The organization has argued fiercely in support of “Red Flag” legislation, distributing gun locks — and in a sober testament to the gun violence epidemic, establishing an initiative called “Stop the Bleed” – which trains people how to stem blood loss in shooting victims.
JCRC has made collaboration a key component of its mission.
“I was speaking to Matt about the state of gun violence in our community and what we as Jews have to offer, and how we can engage in this topic,” Alexander recalled. She added: “It seemed like the strongest thing we had was our safety network, and resources we have to keep not only our community safe, but other communities. And so, I spoke with Matt quite a bit about utilizing these resources, and connecting with other communities that are, frankly, under the threat of possible gun violence.”
Many of those threats manifest as antisemitism, anti-Black anti-LGBTQ+ — fodder for extremist individuals and groups that may begin with overheated rhetoric, which potentially can escalate to violence. JCRC has been proactive in building relationships with faith-based, LGBTQ+, and other collectives that could be targets of weapon-stoked hate.
Change agents have tough roads to navigate, particularly in a Kentucky General assembly where a modest contingent of liberal Democrats is vastly outnumbered by conservative Republicans, for whom the Second Amendment is sacrosanct.
“There are some wonderful lawmakers like Karen Berg that we have, and I think that incremental changes are absolutely valuable, (because) that is ultimately how change is made,” Alexander says. “But when it comes to gun violence, people are dying — now.”
Chris Ashman of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
Immediately recognizable in their bright red T-shirts, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has become one of the nation’s most fervent groups pressing for changes in existing gun laws. A maternal-driven adjunct to Everytown for Gun Safety – billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control advocacy group – Moms Demand Action is unabashedly emotional in its anti-gun messaging.
Its members make their arguments from the vantage point of terrible loss. “I had a sister-in-law who committed suicide by gun,” says Louisville’s Chris Ashman, “and as a retired speech pathologist, I’ve worked with survivors of attempts at suicide.”
Alexander recalls the time when her then-young son went to the home of a friend whose father was a state trooper. Somehow the two boys found the trooper’s service weapon, “and as they were playing with it, it went off and shot a hole in his bedroom wall.” She didn’t learn of the incident until years later, when her now college-age son confessed.
“People come to Moms for a lot of different reasons,” Ashman says, “but many come as survivors, people who’ve had family members who have died because of gun violence.”
Moms Demand Action’s Louisville chapter has been regaining momentum that waned during the pandemic. Its members – 1,100 newsletters go out every month – leverage their collective impact by invoking motherhood fortified by a healthy dose of defiance. They march; they shout; they insist – politely but firmly – that you pay attention.
The organization was founded by Shannon Watts, a corporate communications executive turned stay-at-home mom, shortly after a gunman murdered 26 children and educators at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012.
While not entirely female (male members wear T-shirts declaring “You Have to Be a Real Man to Be a Mom”), the group understands how mothers can persuade otherwise stubborn opponents to — if not agree with them – at least listen to their arguments. Attend a relevant state house or senate committee hearing in Frankfort, and you’ll almost certainly spot a smattering of Moms.
“There was a legislator who called somebody over and said, ‘What is this with the red T-shirts I keep seeing?’ So it makes a difference showing up and monitoring what’s going on when the legislature us in session. A lot of our work is trying to stop some of the bills that go in the other direction – for instance, a bill that would allow open-carry on college campuses (that bill, introduced by Northern Kentucky Republican Rep. Savannah Maddox, failed to advance in the 2023 legislative session).
Large segments of the public are vocal allies.
Walking in Louisville’s recent Pride Parade, “I was absolutely amazed at the responses people gave,” Alexander said. “I mean, there were cheers; there were hurrahs; there were thank-you’s specifically for our group, which made me think, ‘Why aren’t you guys in the voting booth?’”
David Finke, CEO of Jewish Family & Career Services
“I have a lot of thoughts about gun violence. The phrase. “when there’s a mass shooting” is, in my mind, one of the first problems in two ways. One is that we think about mass shootings as a call to action, often about gun control. Because statistically speaking, far more people die from accidental shootings, and then there are suicides that occur. So as horrific as mass shootings are – and even if you take all mass shootings combined – they still pale in comparison to suicides in our country from guns.
From a forensic psychological perspective, it’s easy to say that if somebody does a mass shooting there must be a mental illness piece. But it’s a pretty complicated picture. We will have clients who, from time to time, will have thoughts of suicide. Anybody in the field of behavioral health has to expect that they’re going to see somebody with that with those symptoms at some point and will have to have a way to address that.”
Securing firearms in the home can help deter persons who, especially on impulse, might seek a means of taking their own life. While acknowledging that some people will attempt suicide multiple times, Finke points out that one failed attempt can be all that’s necessary to dissuade a person from trying again.
“There’s a great documentary (“The Bridge” from 2006), featuring one of the few survivors of a suicide attempt from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. And he talks about how – as he’s falling through the sky — he realizes this was a mistake.”
In other words, the more difficult the access, the less likely a suicide attempt will be successful. And while that imperative is not restricted to firearms access – witness barriers at places like Cornell University’s Cascadilla and Fall Creek Gorges – the multitude of unsecured guns means they inevitably become the tool of choice.
Humans, after all, are an impulsive lot, “and sometimes removing access to that road is the only option,” Finke says. “And we’re not, for a variety of reasons. As a country, we’ve chosen not to.”
Early intervention can be the difference, literally, between life and death. Recognizing signs of potential deadly activity – whether homicidal or suicidal – is vital. Failure to pick up on such signs – say, by parents of a teen who’s prone to posting violent intentions on the internet – can be not only reckless, but criminally negligent.
One all-too-rare example of criminal prosecution took place after 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley used his father’s handgun to kill four fellow students at a Michigan high school on Nov. 30, 2021. His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, were charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Childhood trauma, often undiagnosed and/or insufficiently treated, can produce grave consequences in adulthood. A child who is bullied, or subject to racial and community violence, is a prime candidate for extreme down-the-line distress.
“And we’re not only talking about the person who chooses to kill themselves having access to the gun,” Finke says. “We’re talking about the people around that person.”
Cultural norms in America can be another pivotal factor.
“If you if you think about the notion of gun control in the United States versus European countries and Australia,” Finke says, “there’s this belief in the United States that we have individual decision making, but the responsibility that should come with that does not. That if you have access to guns, you should be required to lock them up, or have liability insurance. At some point there was research being done on fingerprinting guns — and as you know, gun manufacturers aren’t doing it.”
Another mitigation approach is implementing so-called Red Flag” laws, which allow a court to order guns to be removed from an individual’s possession if that person is judged to be at risk of harming themselves or others.
“If a non-professional, say a parent or a friend filled out an affidavit, there would be an evaluation prior to their to their guns being removed. It doesn’t just happen — there’s due process. It’s similar to involuntary hospitalization. There has to be evidence.”
Kentucky has no Red Flag laws pertaining to firearms. Some states are proposing raising the minimum age for buying long guns to from the present 18 years old to 21 years old. Again, Kentucky isn’t among them.
Would that three-year jump make an actual difference?
“The research on that has changed dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years,” Finke says. “Part of that is because of the improvement in being able to do MRIs and PET scans (focusing on) the prefrontal cortex, the front of the brain, which is responsible for planning and execution, and for creating inhibitions to impulses. My understanding is that from the standpoint of brain development, 21 is significantly different than 18.”
Science may be persuasive, but in this arena, politics typically has the last word. What, then, can be done to reduce gun violence? Finke offers a few ideas.
“If you’re living with somebody, you would want to make sure that guns, at a minimum, are locked away, particularly if there are children. You want the ammunition separated,” he says. If a parent suspects their child may be at risk – but not so acutely that it’s necessary to call the police – Seven Counties’ Acute Child Psychiatric Services can be brought in. “There are also adult psychiatric services available through the University of Louisville Hospital’s emergency room, which are awesome. Then there is The Couch, an outpatient behavioral health practice that can assist people getting psychiatric services the same day or next day. And if you’re worried about somebody but not facing that immediate piece – that’s when you would call JFCS or a therapist in the community.”
Shawn Morrow, Special Agent in Charge at the Louisville field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, with jurisdiction Kentucky and West Virginia. He took over in 2020 from Stuart Lowrey, who is now Regional Security Advisor at the Jewish Federation of Louisville.
When it comes to firearms regulation, “I think it’s important to recognize that each state passes its own laws relative to what the citizens of those states want, so it’s probably best to think regionally. For instance, some state laws and politics align themselves — if you’re in the northeast, or if you’re in the southeast, many of those states would be the same, or if you’re in the West Coast, or maybe the Pacific Northwest. I would say Kentucky falls in line with many other midwestern states and probably states in the South as well. In comparison to those other regions. I Kentucky has less state regulation than some of the states up in the Northeast or in California, for instance, but is very similar to others around that Southeastern-Midwestern region.”
The ATF is responsible for enforcing Federal gun laws – centering on the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968 — in cooperation with sibling agencies like the FBI and the U.S. Marshal’s Service, and with local law enforcement such as LMPD. It carries out policy rather than making it – Morrow was careful not to inject his personal opinions into a conversation about gun violence.
“We look at firearms crimes that are committed here – violent crime is our number one priority,” he said. “And what we see is that most of guns used in crimes in Kentucky are sourced here in Kentucky. It’s not like they’re coming from up some other state.
“But if you go to some larger urban areas – for instance, Chicago or Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and New York City – those are areas where firearms are generally more heavily regulated. So it’s not uncommon for different organizations or even individuals to go to states where firearms are more readily available.
“Here in the Louisville field division, we have a specific office that is responsible for investigating crimes that involve firearms trafficking, specifically sources of crime guns, and then following up to figure out how these firearms leave lawful commerce and make their way into the black market and eventually a crime scene,” Morrow says. “So yes, we work quite a few investigations that involve firearms leaving Kentucky to be used in crimes in other states.”
Locally, “ATF focuses on violent crime in Louisville – that’s our number one priority. We break that down into a few different buckets. We look at, for instance, organized crime or gang crime. An(other) important part of our mission is to identify the sources of crime guns, to disrupt those trafficking schemes, and then to shut off those sources. And the third piece is individuals who are involved in shootings, using guns to hurt other people – not just shootings, but serial shootings. We have many instances in Louisville where relatively few people are responsible for multiple shooting events. Those are the people ATF focuses on.
“Sometimes we can use state legislation that’s geared toward non-fatal shooting or even homicides, or other violent crime,” Morrow says. “But many times, there are federal laws that we can use to our advantage to make sure that we can make arrests and take individuals off the street.”
Partnerships between the ATF and local law enforcement agencies are critical to mitigating gun violence in the community.
“I’ve worked in many places around the country,” Morrow says. “And I can tell you that the collaboration amongst law enforcement is very different in different parts of the country and so the people of Kentucky and in particular, Louisville, we’re very lucky that the law enforcement relationships in the Louisville area are very strong as an example. LMPD is probably our most important partner in this region. We have an ATF Violent Crime Task Force where there are LMPD detectives who are deputized as federal agents, and who are assigned to ATF to work alongside us so that we can really drill down on those violent crime cases. We operate a crime gun intelligence center that is an important piece in investigating shooting-related incidents in the city.
“Every day we have informal discussions and meetings with LAPD officers, investigators and command staff to talk about our strategies and to talk about investigations and different public safety initiatives,” Morrow continued. “We have formal meetings, at least once a week where an ATF analyst, for instance, will do assessments on shooting incidents to help investigators draw links, identify different trends and then figure out who our suspects are so that we can work those cases together.”
ATF also makes sure gun dealers are complying with Federal regulations, overseeing the NICS – the National Instant Check System – which performs on-the-spot background checks on prospective gun buyers. NICS will flag ATF if an individual buys more than two guns in a single month – perfectly legal in most cases, but an indicator of a possible bad actor.
“It’s not always nefarious,” Morrow acknowledges. “For instance, if you have, say, a security company and you’re going to hire some new employees, you might need to purchase 20 handguns of the same make and model. But many times, that can also indicate that someone is trafficking in firearms. And so we take when we review that information, we may take a look at it depending on who the purchaser is, or who their associates are — have their associates been involved in any other criminal conduct? One of the most important indicators is to figure out if any of those firearms have ever been recovered by law enforcement, and if so, were they traced through the ATS national tracing center, so we know that if somebody has a pattern of buying multiple firearms, and then those firearms are recovered by law enforcement in a relatively short amount of time after that purchase, that’s a strong indicator that we have firearms trafficking.”
Regardless of context, Morrow agrees that that the sheer multitude of guns in circulation is a never-ending challenge.
“Studies suggest there are between 350 and 400 million firearms already in circulation” in the U.S., he says. “In Kentucky, during the last five years we’ve sold more than 1.7 million firearms just through Federal Firearms Licensees, and that doesn’t account for private sales or the secondary market. That’s it’s even more important that ATF and other law enforcement are focusing on those guns that are being used to commit crimes.”
Still to come: Final thoughts from Rose Smith, whose son, Cory “Ace” Crowe, was murdered on Oct. 25, 2014 — a crime that to this day remains unsolved.