Gun debate comes to Camas

Safety advocates press lawmakers during town hall

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A spirited conversation about gun laws took center stage at a Saturday morning legislative town hall in Camas, after members of the grassroots gun-reform group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and others in the audience questioned lawmakers from Washington’s 18th district about their efforts to prevent gun violence in Washington State and enact gun-control legislation.

Sheila Pearce, a mother and local member of Moms Demand Action, kicked off the questions by asking the two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Ann Rivers and Rep. Brandon Vick, how they were addressing gun violence and its associated safety issues.

“We’re working with Democrats … on a comprehensive school safety bill,” Sen. Rivers said, explaining that she was in favor of legislation that funded capital improvements aimed at preventing outsiders from getting into school buildings or unattached “pod” classrooms.

The senator also said she was concentrating on the mental health and social-emotional aspects of gun violence.

“Here’s what we do know — and some people say, ‘Oh, you’re dodging,’ — is that people who are mentally stable and mentally well don’t commit violent acts,” Rivers said.

She added that she’d recently talked to colleagues in Sweden and Denmark.

“They said, ‘Your mental health system is laughable, so that’s why we have similar numbers of guns over here, but we don’t have what you have,'” Rivers said. “Here’s the problem with guns: When guns are outlawed then only the outlaws will have the guns.”

Pearce said she appreciated the senator’s work addressing mental health and school safety measures, but reiterated that she was not asking about outlawing guns.

“What can you do about the piece of gun violence that is the guns?” Pearce asked the lawmakers. “We’re not talking about outlawing guns.”

“You’ve clearly thought about this, so I’d be interested to know, what do you think is the answer?” Rivers asked Pearce.

The Moms Demand Action member said she personally feels there is a need for legislators to address the fact that citizens have access to the types of military grade weapons used in so many mass shootings.

“My second-graders see the news … and they are afraid,” Pearce told the lawmakers. “They’re afraid of people coming into their school and killing them.”

Rep. Vick latched on to the fact that Pearce had asked about “automatic” weapons instead of “semi-automatic” weapons — the Moms Demand Action member later said she had misspoke and meant to say “semi-automatic weapons” — and said Washington and the other 49 states do not allow access to automatic weapons.

“A lot of these ‘common sense’ things we’ve had after Parkland, we have (in Washington State),” Vick said, making “air quotes” for common sense. “The next discussion usually goes to, ‘What’s an AR-15? Yada, yada, yada.’ For me, that’s the best technology 1956 has to offer, so, I mean, I don’t think banning (AR-15s) is the answer, either.”

Rivers seemed to agree with her fellow lawmaker. “At Virginia Tech, one young man with two handguns killed 32 people,” Rivers said. “Look, when someone wants to do something bad, it won’t matter … I heard that England is thinking (about) banning knives now, because they’ve had so many knife attacks. We have to get at what the root cause is.”

Both legislators said they were thinking about safety during their legislative sessions.

“I’ve had people attack me and say, ‘you don’t care about kids, you don’t care about schools,’ but we lose more children every year to distracted driving accidents than we have lost in the history of the United States to gun violence,” Rivers said. “And, to that end, I introduced a distracted driving bill … I took a lot of flack about that, but when I looked at the research … it seemed the most common sense thing we could do. I care about safety and I care about our kids. But we have to make sure that we honor the constitution of the United States and we honor the constitution of the state of Washington and educate people about what the existing laws. Our extreme protection order was called out by Gabby Gifford’s husband on CNN, saying you’re doing it right.”

Vick said there was a bill that hadn’t passed in the Washington House, which would allows students to access an app and report troubled peers anonymously to their school administrators, which could, he said, “keep schools safe from shooting specifically.”

“The reason we’re coming up against a hurdle is that most of these things have been done here,” Vick said. “If it’s truly common sense and not inhibitive of rights, we want to look into it. But, I feel like we’ve gotten to most of those places.”

Rivers agreed with the Moms Demand Action representatives, who said there is more to be done to address gun violence, saying she was talking about age limits — 18 or 21 — with her son recently and that there are ongoing conversations in the state senate about these issues.

“I don’t think you’ve heard the end of it,” Rivers said, adding that she would be open to discussing the age limit question.

“If you’re an adult at 21 instead of 18, then what goes along with that?” Rivers said. “If we’re raising (the age limit) for semi-automatics, then we would have to have cutouts because we still strap guns on our 18 year olds and send them (into military conflict zones).”

Asked if she would be willing to pass legislation raising the age limit for certain guns, Rivers said she would be “willing to have that conversation and see if it makes sense.”

Camas woman praises lawmakers for hosting in-person town hall

Ellen Sward, a Camas resident who worked for the California legislature for nearly 20 years before retiring and dedicating her time to helping address homelessness in Washougal and Vancouver, as well as tutor children at local schools, said Saturday’s town hall was the first she has attended, “in which elected officials answer questions posed by constituents.”

Sward applauded the lawmakers for showing up to the in-person town hall.

“I want to compliment you,” Sward told Rivers and Vick on Saturday. “You hold town halls. They’re not easy and they’re not popular.”

Sward said she started writing her legislators in the 18th district about gun violence prevention after the Feb. 14 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“As with many other people, since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I have become active in promoting common-sense gun restrictions, especially given the wide availability of semi-automatic guns and high capacity ammunition magazines in this state, not to mention the absence of licensing or testing requirements applicable to gun owners, uneven age requirements for long guns and handguns and no limits on amount of guns purchased over time,” Sward said in an email to The Post-Record sent a few days after the town hall.

She has been emailing Rivers and Vick about gun safety in Washington and said that, although she appreciates the legislators’ willingness to communicate with their constituents, the lawmakers’ answers prompted her to attend Saturday’s in-person town hall.

“I came to the town hall on Saturday primarily because of my dissatisfaction with these emails. For example, Rivers wrote to me that “sadly, more (gun) laws do not equal more safety.” I believe that reliable data shows otherwise,” Sward told The Post-Record.

On Saturday, Sward said she believed the 18th legislative district is “changing radically” and that “feelings about guns and restrictions on guns (are) changing as we speak.” She then asked Vick about what uses he believes semi-automatic weapons have that may outweigh their potential for harm.

“Why are semi-automatics so important they need to continue to be so available?” Sward asked Rep. Vick.

Vick, who had earlier said he owns a semi-automatic pistol, told Sward that he could think of a few uses for semi-automatic weapons, including “self-protection, hunting and displaying over the mantle.”

“It’s a rifle,” Vick said. “It’s a tool. If there’s a job that tool can be used on, to me that’s A-OK.”

“So target practice, hunting and self-protection would be something that you think outweighs any potential harm?” Sward asked the representative.

“I suppose that’s true,” Vick said. “When I weigh any bill I vote on, (I consider) do you sacrifice freedom for safety or perceived safety … and I vote on the freedom side.”

Legislators also talk education, taxes, Washougal projects

While gun laws took up most of the town hall’s first half, the 18th district lawmakers did have a chance to talk about taxes, education funding and a couple Washougal projects that brought nearly the entire Washougal City Council plus the city’s mayor, Molly Coston, to the Saturday town hall.

“We had a very productive session,” Rivers said of the legislative session that ended March 8.

“I think we may have McCleary squared away once and for all,” Rivers added, referring to state lawmakers’ years-long battle to find a bipartisan solution to the McCleary lawsuit over adequate school funding in Washington State. Under direct order of the state’s Supreme Court, the 2018 Legislature approved an additional $1 billion for K-12 education.

“I feel like the Supreme Court will come back and say, ‘yes, you did your job,'” Rivers said Saturday. “My concern is that pieces of the education bill passed this year will push us back into another McCleary situation seven or eight years from now.”

As for taxes, the lawmakers brought a visual display showing that legislation they helped pass will give property owners a one-year, 30-percent drop in taxes and should provide some tax relief for homeowners who feel their property taxes have been rising too fast. Sen. Rivers cautioned that property owners needed to understand that the Legislature can’t impact things like local levies and bond measures passed by local and regional voters.

“We can’t control what others do — people are passing levies in some (local) areas for schools, EMS, fire,” Rivers said. “But you will see a 30-percent rebate in ’19 for taxes you paid in ’18.”

The one-time property tax relief, a Senate Democrat plan many Republican lawmakers did not support, passed the Senate 25-23 on the next-to-last day of the regular session. A response to last year’s higher than normal property taxes, due to the McCleary education funding court order, the rebate will lower the state’s property taxes in 2018 only.

Several Washougal City Council members turned out to the April 14 town hall and thanked Rivers and Vick for their roles in securing funding to repair a damaged dock at Steamboat Landing and connect a regional recreation trail to the Washougal waterfront.

“I’m happy and excited to support these types of projects that promote economic vitality,” Vick said.