HARRODSBURG, Ky. – Courtney Griffieth’s cellphone lit up with yet another message notification while she scanned the menu at her hometown Huddle House, settling on the burger.
Just 22, her amber-colored hair spilling out from under her beanie and draping the stems of her black-framed glasses, Griffieth would seem an unlikely leader of the nearly 90,000 supporters who have persuaded more than 100 Kentucky counties to declare themselves sanctuaries for gun rights.
Unlikely, that is, until you spot her maroon Grunt Style-brand sweatshirt, emblazoned with an American flag sporting seven stripes – each one bleeding into a rifle.
Griffieth loves guns. She loves the feel of a rifle’s recoil against her shoulder, the ping of a bullet hitting a metal target, the way the stress melts away when she gets to “shoot some steel.”
“You always leave the range feeling better than when you got there,” she said.
But most importantly, she loves what guns represent. They are, she believes, the Founding Fathers’ insurance policy against tyranny – the safeguard for every other right spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
Second Amendment ‘sanctuaries’:Will they affect gun laws?
It’s why she has embraced her role as one of the state’s most prominent defenders of gun ownership. It comes as Kentucky United, the pro-Second Amendment group Griffieth helped grow to nearly 90,000 members, finds itself in turmoil following revelations that founder John Cartwright is a felon, forbidden from owning a gun.
“A lot of people are pushing for me to be ahead of this because they’re like, you’re the future of this,” she said.
In the last two months, Kentucky United’s members have packed county meetings across the state to lobby for the passage of so-called Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions.
Nearly all of Kentucky’s 120 counties have adopted versions of “2A sanctuary resolutions,” joining an ever-growing list of municipal governments in at least 20 other states spread across the country.
At their core, these resolutions are public declarations of opposition toward any infringement – real or perceived – on what supporters see as their right to keep and bear arms.
In Kentucky, much like the rest of the country, the resolutions have been a reaction to everything from calls for bans on assault-style weapons to proposed extreme risk protection orders – so-called red flag laws – which provide a legal way to temporarily take firearms from people deemed a credible threat of harming themselves or others.
Gun violence-prevention advocates argue that these resolutions are the byproduct of a campaign of fear and misinformation designed to distract from efforts to find real solutions to America’s gun violence epidemic, which claims thousands of lives every year – including hundreds in Kentucky.
That campaign has found willing partners among Kentucky’s sheriffs and county leaders who see the “gun sanctuary” resolutions as a mandate to willfully ignore any gun-control laws legislators might pass, advocates say.
“They’re really overstepping their role in the constitutional system and undermining the rule of law,” said Kathi Crowe, legislative lead volunteer for gun violence-prevention group Moms Demand Action’s Kentucky chapter. “I think a lot of this is to intimidate parents, survivors and people who want protection from gun violence.”
‘I’m not going to be in a ditch somewhere’
Griffieth grew up around guns: older rifles, family heirlooms, the pistols her dad kept for self-defense.
He was a hunter but gave it up, she said, when the screams of a deer he shot sounded too much like a baby crying.
She fired her first gun at 21, shooting targets on trees at a friend’s farm. But for Griffieth, owning a gun is about self-defense.
“I’m going to have a way to protect myself if I should go up against a male attacker that could overpower me, or multiple attackers,” she said. “I’m not going to be in a ditch somewhere.”
The transition from gun owner to gun-rights activist percolated as Griffieth got deeper into her studies as a criminal justice major at Eastern Kentucky University. She learned more about constitutional law, about the statistics of gun violence and the practicality of gun control.
“It just fell together,” she said.
Griffieth had already been a member of one Facebook group for gun owners when, shortly before Christmas, she joined the fledgling Kentucky United.
She didn’t know its founder, John Cartwright, or that the group would quickly become the engineer behind turning Kentucky into a gun sanctuary.
The Second Amendment leader who ‘can’t own a gun’
Guns were also a constant in John Cartwright’s childhood.
Cartwright, 51, comes from a military family. His father served in the Army, and he said his ancestors were Revolutionary War officers.
“My dad taught me a gun was always loaded, even if it wasn’t,” Cartwright said. “It wasn’t a fear thing. It was respect.”
That respect for firearms, and his family’s ties to America’s birth, helped fuel his interest in the Constitution and his path toward gun-rights advocate.
“I knew the Constitution before I got out of grade school,” he said.
Even today, he loves to talk about the Second Amendment, about how the word “regulated” meant something different back then, and about how the Founding Fathers didn’t intend to limit the type of weapons owned “or even who can own them.”
On Dec. 10, Cartwright created the Kentucky United Facebook group to educate people about red flag laws and other gun-control proposals that he believes will strip people of their Second Amendment rights.
“When you see it being taken away, you’ve got to stand up,” he said. “It’s the same as defending your life.”
It’s a right that Cartwright can’t take advantage of himself. In 2012, he pleaded guilty to felony counts of defrauding a secured creditor, obliterating his own Second Amendment protections.
“I can’t own a gun … but it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in something,” he said. “I can fight for other people’s freedoms whether I have them or not.”
The public disclosure of that conviction, coupled with Cartwright’s self-admitted “stern” manner, ultimately caused Griffieth and other Kentucky United leaders to splinter from the group in mid-January – but not before they transformed Kentucky into a Second Amendment “sanctuary.”
Where the gun sanctuary movement began
In April 2018, leaders in the rural southern county of Effingham, Illinois, grew increasingly concerned with gun-control proposals coming from the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature.
Drawing inspiration from the immigration enforcement debate raging in Chicago and elsewhere, they passed their own “sanctuary” resolution – among the nation’s first aimed at protecting the Second Amendment.
“It’s a buzzword, a word that really gets attention,” county board Vice Chairman David Campbell told The Associated Press.
He was right. A year later, more than half of Illinois’ 102 counties had passed similar resolutions, according to media reports.
It’s now estimated that Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions have been adopted in various forms by hundreds of local governments in both red and blue states – at least 20 in all.
The current wave of 2A sanctuary resolutions in Kentucky took root in Appalachian counties near Virginia’s border. Harlan County passed what is likely the state’s first, on Dec. 17, 2019, modifying language from a resolution passed in southwest Virginia county.
Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said he heard from officials in 38 other Kentucky counties after it passed, all asking for a copy.
“We don’t see anything in Kentucky that has any real legs behind it,” he said of current gun-control proposals. “But you never know.”
What stokes fear among many gun owners is talk of an unfiled bill to legalize extreme-risk protection orders, which critics say violate due process rights guaranteed by the Fifth and 14th amendments.
Such red flag laws “were definitely a big push,” Griffieth said, “because most of us feel like that one had the biggest threat of passing.”
Some gun-rights advocates have seized upon those fears, painting red flag laws and other gun-control bills as an attempt to trample on the Constitution and disarm law-abiding citizens.
“Across this commonwealth, communities have united in their county to send a message at the local level, to the state and federal government, that we the people will not stand for this gun-grabbing nonsense,” Republican state Rep. Savannah Maddox told the crowd at a Jan. 31 gun rally outside the Capitol.
Cartwright and other Kentucky United leaders mobilized around the passage of 2A resolutions. They set up satellite Facebook pages for county-specific offshoots and printed flyers to hand out at gun shops and other stores.
Griffieth kept track of when 2A resolutions would be on county fiscal court agendas and updated a map as counties scheduled meetings and passed resolutions.
“It blew up fast,” Griffieth said.
By Jan. 4, 14 counties had adopted 2A resolutions, according to Griffieth’s tally.
Seventeen days later, the total swelled to 92 counties.
A message becomes twisted
At its height, Kentucky United boasted close to 90,000 members. With that growth came a struggle to manage its public image.
The group started with the idea that it would be free of politics. There were to be no threats of violence, no tolerance for hatred.
“We didn’t want anyone to be left out, no matter where you were,” Cartwright said. “I was wanting the page to be on the same morals that our Constitution was founded on.”
The reality, though, has been different.
A Courier Journal review of the group’s Facebook page found multiple posts that attack liberals or accuse Democratic lawmakers of committing treason for sponsoring gun-control bills.
Other members have shared right-wing conspiracy theories, left blatantly Islamophobic comments, or made threats of violence.
One member, responding to a comment about a plan by Democrats to take guns “a step at a time,” wrote: “and we fight back a bullet at a time.”
Another member wrote: “It’s time to cleanse the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants and patriots alike.”
The rhetoric has carried beyond social media.
At a hastily organized gun-rights rally Jan. 15 outside the statehouse in Frankfurt, a small group of Kentucky United members joked about coming back a few days later to barbecue pork during Muslim Day at the Capitol.
Both Cartwright and Griffieth have condemned such behavior.
“We try to weed out those people and completely block them from being involved with us,” Griffieth said. But, she added, “you’re always going to get people in there that sneak in and say stuff that does not go along with what we’re representing.”
She dismissed it as just “talk” when people say they are willing to use violence, if necessary, to defend their rights to own guns.
“It’s just like my dog,” Griffieth said. “She’ll bark at you. She’ll growl at you. She’ll make you think she’s going to eat your face off. But if you come up and pet her, she’ll lick you. She’s all bark, which is what a lot of people are.”
A push for Second Amendment legislation
Kentucky United’s ranks have since dropped to 77,000 after Griffieth and other leaders split to form their own private Facebook group, United Kentucky, which has 15,000 members.
Cartwright sees the group stepping further into politics, with some Kentucky United leaders running to unseat county leaders who have not been sufficiently supportive of gun ownership.
He’s also trying to get his criminal record expunged, to restore his right to own guns and, possibly, to one day run for office.
Griffieth, meanwhile, is in her last semester at Eastern Kentucky University. After graduation, she hopes to land a job as an investigator with the Kentucky State Police.
To date, all but 12 of Kentucky’s 120 counties have adopted versions of a 2A sanctuary resolution.
Republican state Rep. Savannah Maddox has filed a statewide resolution this legislative session that urges the General Assembly to oppose red flag laws or “any legislation intended to infringe upon a law-abiding citizen’s right to keep and bear arms. …”
Griffieth hopes lawmakers will take that a step further and pass “legitimate legislation” that, once and for all, protects Kentuckians’ Second Amendment rights.
“Having the county support,” she said, “is really going to help for a state push.”
Follow Jonathan Bullington on Twitter: @jrbullington.