With the school shooting in Florida and the ensuing March for Our Lives still fresh on their minds, students brought candidates for the 3rd Congressional District together for a town hall Monday night in Vancouver to talk about gun safety and legislation.
Solving the problem of gun violence in America isn’t easy, admitted Emma Busch, an 18-year-old student at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, who helped organize the event hosted by Students Demand Action Clark County.
“I really liked what Carolyn (Long) said at the end: We agree about a lot more than we realize,” Busch said. “Don’t go for the dramatic at the start, go for what’s plausible and what people are willing to compromise on and it will make a difference to start now.”
Long spoke alongside fellow Democratic candidates Dorothy Gasque and David McDevitt. Republican challenger Earl Bowerman also attended the town hall, providing the opposing view to the Democratic candidates on most questions.
Bowerman had to go it alone with a view that was often unpopular as his opponent, incumbent Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, did not attend.
“I hope nobody has any tomatoes,” Bowerman said, using a light-hearted touch with a crowd nearly filling the Columbia Room at the Vancouver Community Library that wasn’t sympathetic to his viewpoints on gun control or mental health.
The town hall alternated questions between student and adult attendees, who brought up issues including complete weapons bans, mental health and gun violence, police brutality and arming teachers.
The resulting responses were emblematic of the parties they represent. Arming teachers, for example, brought responses staunchly against the concept from the majority of the group.
“The last thing we need to do is militarize our schools,” Gasque said.
Bowerman, however, supports the idea and suggested taking protection a step further.
“I think you start with perimeter fences with alarms and cameras, as seen in dangerous neighborhoods,” he said.
Much of the conversation centered around the culture shift needed to address mental health as a solution to gun violence. Gasque, Long and McDevitt support funding for research to further prove the connection and work toward solutions, as well as increasing funding for schools to access mental health counselors.
Bowerman again took the opposing stance.
“I’m not prepared to talk about mental health; I hadn’t thought about it on the way over,” he said. “But I don’t see a connection between guns and mental health. It’s difficult to prove a cause and effect.”
People need to be responsible for themselves, he said, adding, “You get up and you survive. I believe in a hand up, but I don’t believe we are nearly as many victims as we say we are.”
Where the candidates largely differed was the proposal to ban assault weapons. Bowerman was unsupportive, as was Long — albeit for different reasons. Bowerman stated that gun regulations don’t make a difference in reducing gun violence, while Long argued licensing and exhaustive background checks are necessary to reduce gun violence. Gasque said she supports a temporary ban on sales and production as well as a voluntary buyback program to get guns off the street. Meanwhile, McDevitt said he supports an outright ban.
“And I support a ban of possession after a particular period of time with a buyback period in the interim so those weapons can be destroyed,” McDevitt added.
As for arming police, the group was predictably split. Bowerman took to defending law enforcement, stating that in any instance of an officer-involved shooting, an investigation is conducted and it’s rarely found police acted improperly. His response was met with audible groans from the audience.
Gasque added that we need to demilitarize police and instead teach them to de-escalate. McDevitt agreed, stating that police are often trained to shoot to kill rather than maim.
“Just because someone calls out police brutality, they are not attacking law enforcement,” Long said. “Most people respect what law enforcement does, but we have a responsibility as Americans to call out police brutality.”
In the allotted 90 minutes, the conversation barely scratched the surface of what’s been an ongoing national debate. But fueled by a passionate exchange, dozens of community members continued discussing the issues huddled inside and outside of the library. For Busch and the other student organizers, sparking this conversation is the first step to real change.