In Two States, Gun Violence Pits Blue Cities against Red Legislatures

REUTERS/Kevin Wurm
People attend a rally against gun violence weeks after the mass shooting at The Covenant School, in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., April 17, 2023.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Anteshia Pitts was born and raised here, and that’s how she identifies – more as a Louisvillian than a resident of Kentucky.

Like many of this city’s residents, Pitts, 39, supports tighter gun-control laws. But she knows action will be hard to come by, because her beliefs are not shared by many of Kentucky’s rural residents – especially in the Republican-controlled state legislature, which has rolled back gun restrictions in the past.

“It makes you feel very not heard. Like you as an individual don’t matter. Like, we as individuals, who are dying on the streets, almost daily – nothing?” Pitts said, speaking moments after she wrote small prayers in black Sharpie on one of the crosses outside Louisville’s Old National Bank.

The five crosses honor the five people who were shot and killed at a downtown bank earlier this month, exactly two weeks after six people, including three 9-year-olds, were shot and killed at the Covenant School in Nashville. Last weekend, four teenagers were shot and killed during a party in a Dadeville, Ala.

The recent mass killings in Southern states have illuminated the gaping chasm between the priorities of Democratic-led cities and their Republican-led states, and highlighted the increasing efforts by GOP state leaders to limit how local officials govern. Across the country, liberal cities are attempting to pass abortion rights legislation, a higher minimum wage and tighter gun laws – only to be quashed by Republicans in state legislatures.

“Cities are creatures of the state and have to comply with state law. But historically, there was a lot of leeway for cities to experiment with policies that worked for them. And Republicans used to be the party that typically called for local control – and now we’re seeing that being reversed,” said Julia Payson, assistant professor of politics at New York University. “Coming in and totally hamstringing the local democratic process – this is new and goes against the historical use of this power.”

The dynamic played out in Tennessee recently when two Democrats were ousted from the state House after demonstrating at the state Capitol in support of more gun-control measures – only to be reinstated by the city council members in their home cities of Nashville and Memphis.

Now, Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg has found himself at the center of that tug-of-war. Limited by state laws restricting the ability of cities to pass gun-control measures, Greenberg last week made an impassioned plea to “every Kentucky state senator and every Kentucky state representative who wants to join me in reducing the amount of gun violence in Louisville.” In Davidson County, where Nashville resides, Biden won 64 percent of the vote in the 2020 election compared with 37 percent statewide.

Since Greenberg’s Tuesday address, several legislators on both sides of the aisle have reached out to him, he said in an interview with The Washington Post, and he has lined up in-person meetings to talk about what kind of middle ground could be found in the gun debate.

“We do see these shootings as moments where occasionally mayors and state government can work together to pass policy,” Payton said. “But that might be the exception rather than the rule – and we’ll see in Tennessee and Kentucky what actually happens.”

Local power

Last year, at Greenberg’s campaign headquarters while he was running for mayor, a man showed up at his cramped office and began shooting. No one was hurt, though bullet holes pierced his office walls and ripped through Greenberg’s sweater. The man, Quintez Brown, was a member of Black Lives Matter Louisville and was released on a $100,000 bail.

The event marked the first time Greenberg went to therapy, he said.

One year later, Greenberg, now mayor, was driving downtown to work when ambulances flew past his car. Moments later, he got an alert on his phone that there was an active shooter just a few blocks away, at Old National Bank.

He texted two people he knew who worked at the bank. Only one would respond. The other, Thomas Elliott, was killed.

“My empathy is strengthened, is heightened, as a result of that experience, which I hope makes me a stronger person and a better mayor, particularly when it comes to the resolve that we need to make our city safer, to reduce the amount of violent crime, to end this gun violence epidemic,” Greenberg said.

But much of his ability to be a “better mayor” is hamstrung by the state, he said. In 2012, Kentucky lawmakers enacted a policy known as preemption that forbids localities from passing measures related to gun policy, stating that any local “executive or legislative action in violation of this section or the spirit thereof is hereby declared null, void, and unenforceable.”

Firearms were the legal domain most heavily regulated by state preemption laws as of 2019, according to a study by the National League of Cities and Temple University. It found that 49 states have at least one explicit preemption law on the books.

“It’s an explicit prohibition on local governments,” Greenberg said. “To me, that is the biggest impediment.”

Greenberg has not publicly advocated specific gun laws, beyond calling for the repeal of a 1998 law that requires law enforcement to send firearms used by shooters to the state, which in turn sells the weapons to licensed gun dealers. He said no one should be allowed to purchase a firearm that was used to murder people.

In an interview, Greenberg acknowledged there were “a lot more” policy changes he’d like to see, but declined to specify, saying he was “focused in the coming days on private conversations that will lead to improved public policy.”

Physician Muhammad Babar, a popular doctor in Louisville who spoke at a vigil after the bank shooting, said in an interview that Greenberg’s hesitance was understandable.

“Unfortunately, when you speak bluntly, then the other side closes their mind. And they do not get the gist of the message,” Babar said. “I am hoping that our state legislature from this tragedy understands that we need to have dialogue, we need to discuss, because Louisville is part of Kentucky and gun violence is not just here, it’s in every part of our state and our country.”

But just 20 miles south of Louisville, in Bullitt County, state Rep. Thomas Huff says the state shouldn’t grant Greenberg any additional control.

“The state actually makes the laws for the state. I don’t think cities ought to be able to make their own,” Huff said in a Washington Post interview. “I’m not a big supporter of gun restrictions anyway.”

José Cubero is mayor of Bullitt County’s city seat, Shepherdsville. Cubero, the first Latino mayor of the town, said he would want to know more about what Greenberg wants to do before granting him local control.

“If the mayor of Louisville wants to have that kind of ability – I want to know what he’s talking about, first. Does he want to put in some training, obviously, to make sure people can handle a gun? Because a gun can take a life, it’s like a car, you have to get a license for that, isn’t that common sense? I would think it would be,” said Cubero, a Republican.

‘Good values’

The political divide between major cities and their statewide legislatures reflects the larger urban rural divide in the United States, said Payson, the professor. In Kentucky, it’s evident just 20 miles south of downtown Louisville, in Bullitt County.

Curt Hudson, chair of the county’s Republican Party, explained the divide in terms of an iconic, polarizing red hat.

“If I wore a Make America Great Again hat to Kroger just down the street, I’d have people asking me, ‘Where can I get one of those?'” he said. “If I went in down Bardstown Road in Louisville, I’d probably get somebody that was going to either yell, scream, sic their dog on me, I don’t know – try to run me over or something.”

He described the division between Kentucky’s cities and towns as “night and day. It’s like when you think California, and you think Florida. It’s literally so much different.” The cities, he said, are like California.

Huff, the representative, said there was nothing in his power to help prevent mass shootings – or as he characterized it, to “stop evil.”

“A return to good values would be a key thing. Repent, repent before God would be a good thing,” Huff said. “I don’t think new laws are going to change anything. You can’t legislate morality.”

But some Republicans here do see common ground. Cubero, the Shepherdsville mayor, thinks mental health checks such as red flag laws and requiring training before purchasing a gun could be beneficial. He said he thinks people in Kentucky are less polarized than they or their elected representatives appear to be.

“I think we all should have guns, but at the same time, I want those other guardrails in there, too,” he said. “You’re never going to get a real answer until people really decide that, between where you’re at and where I’m at . . . somewhere in the middle is the truth.”