Community Politics

Democratic Representative Chris Harris of Pike County said throughout his life — growing up in a holler, working in coal mines after high school and earning a law degree — he was surrounded by gun culture. But at a town hall forum in Louisville, both Harris and Senator Morgan McGarvey (D-Louisville) said Kentucky needs gun reform.

At a discussion at Crescent Hill Baptist Church Thursday evening, McGarvey, Harris and other participants discussed recent school shootings, and suggested ways bring substantive change to Kentucky’s laws and culture.

Last month, a day after the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Harris made the news with a speech on the floor of the Kentucky House of Representatives. He said he supported the Second Amendment, but called for “common sense” gun reform, including a ban on the sale of so-called “assault rifles” and bump stocks.

Harris said he took the stance despite the fact that the National Rifle Association is one of the strongest lobbying arms in Frankfort. He said the group mobilizes its supporters to contact legislators and preys on “low-information voters.” McGarvey said he receives 1,000 emails overnight when the NRA pushes an alert for its supporters to act.

“All from people in my district, all advocating the same thing, all with the two most important lines: ‘I am your constituent. I will remember your vote when I vote,’” McGarvey said.

Citing 2012’s Sandy Hook school shooting, which left 20 first-graders dead, some forum participants questioned security at Jefferson County Public Schools. An audience member said he found security at his child’s school to be lax, and McGarvey agreed.

Panelist Dr. Lisa Willner, a Jefferson County school board member and executive director of the Kentucky Psychological Association found that surprising.

“As a school board member, I’m never able to just walk into a school without someone stopping me first,” she said.

But she said in JCPS, protocol dictates having a holding area where someone must sign a visitor in or determine their intentions before giving them access.

Harris said some rural schools require different security, but change is still needed.

“We’re very trusting. We don’t think this is ever going to happen to us, but it is going to happen to us. It’s just a matter of time,” Harris said. “We can either try to address it — do the best that we can to try to get ahead of this problem now, or we’re going to be in the same situation that Marshall County or Parkland, Florida is in. And we’re going to be asking ourselves, ‘Why didn’t we do more?'”

Forum participants also discussed offering more mental health services to schools and how to mobilize youth to vote.

A paper handed out at the forum detailed 22 bills introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly regulating guns or providing schools security and mental health services. McGarvey said some of those bills might still go forward, but warned Kentucky’s ailing pension system has commandeered lawmakers’ attention away from gun legislation.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.