Inside And Outside A Tightly Controlled Jason Lewis “Town Hall”

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Those outside wanted in. Those inside wanted a conversation about issues. The tightly controlled nature of what Rep. Jason Lewis called a “town hall” didn’t allow either to easily happen.

The Lakeville event was one of three Lewis was holding on May 19. These were his first pre-announced, face-to-face public meetings with constituents since he took office. However, the venue for the event was small. The number of chairs set up was even smaller. And smaller yet was the number of people allowed in to the event. The room had many empty seats while people outside and inside asked that more people be allowed into the room.

“I would just hope that you would be gracious enough to open the doors (to those) that want to be here,” asked Christine Bergland of Eagan.

Lewis refused the request, saying there were security concerns, but never explaining how letting more people into the room would endanger security.

A prayer opened the session, making some who attended feel uncomfortable. Particularly since it seemed to call for Lewis’ re-election.

“We ask you to bless, especially Jason Lewis, our upcoming elections, may we have a heart after you so that we would vote to bring a great nation to be even greater than it is now,” prayed a man who said his name was Lynn Farrelson.

Gun issue sparks only real conversation during event

Luke Hellier, a former “Minnesota Democrats Exposed” blogger and current Lakeville City Councilman, moderated the event. The format allowed people to make statements or ask questions, but Lewis did not have to respond to them directly. Hellier later picked from submitted written questions — sometimes discarding them, saying they had already been addressed. He tried to set aside a question about gun safety but the woman who submitted it objected.

“This is a specific question,” said Nancy from Rosemount.

Hellier relented and read the question.

“Just a few days ago a beautiful seven-year-old child lost his life because he found a loaded handgun that was stored in a cardboard box. His death was 100% preventable had the adults in his home understood basic gun safety protocol. Why do we not require all gun owners to take at least one hour of instruction in gun safety?”

Lewis replied, “A lot of this is left to the state. For instance the 21-year-old age. Some states have 21. In Minnesota we don’t. We actually go down with an adult I believe to 16. And our hunting culture. I couldn’t agree more that everybody ought to know how to use a firearm. And ought to have like a training system. But the problem with some of these laws is that it doesn’t insure that people will do them. One of the reasons…”

Nancy interrupted. “Go ahead,” said Lewis.

“I know that part of it,” said Nancy. “My husband’s a hunter. My son’s a hunter. My son is on the trap team. I’m not (inaudible) guns. I’m pro-gun safety. The seven-year-old boy is gone. Because his parents or whomever.”

Lewis replied, “I understand that argument. Well there’s laws, but people you know people are going to break laws.”

“If you were going to feel that way, we shouldn’t have laws for anything,” said Nancy.

“That’s a fair point,” said Lewis.

“I just want some funding or something,” Nancy continued. “Some sort of public education about how to store your gun safely. Because those school massacres that have happened in New Town…”

“Or the one in Texas came from parents,” added Lewis. “There are laws that are already on the books that would allow credible authorities to prosecute families for child abuse. Those laws are already there. There are civil laws that will allow somebody to file a tort in some cases. All I’m saying is, if you start to penalize parents on this, where is it going to stop? There’s lots of matters where people allow children to eat super gulps or whatever the case might be … junk food. But to go in and say we’re going to take over and tell you you have to do.”

“You’re equating a human life with a super gulp? Are you kidding me?” asked Nancy.

“No, I’m not equating that at all,” said Lewis. “I’m equating there are a lot of children that don’t have proper supervision. Many of them die.”

“Yeah this kid killed himself. Other kids kill other kids,” said Nancy.

“I… look. You disagree but I’ll give you an example of where I’m coming from,” said Lewis. “In Chicago there were some 500 murders last year. 97 percent of those were illegally obtained handguns on the black market. 3 percent were done with legally obtained guns, following the law.”

(Editor’s note: Chicago is often pointed to as having tough gun laws, but still having a problem with guns. Law enforcement officials say 60 percent of the guns confiscated on the streets of Chicago come from Indiana, Wisconsin and Mississippi, which have less restrictive gun laws. The other 40 percent come from suburban Cook County and nearby suburbs.)

Lewis continued, “What I’m saying is, is passing another law is not going to insure those tragedies stop. And I wish it would. But that’s all I’m saying. I don’t disagree with you and maybe there’s some incentive we could do or put in place to encourage it.”

“I don’t want to take the guns away,” said Nancy. “I really don’t because I have guns in my house. We know how to store them.”

“And people should store their guns,” said Lewis, “I think everybody agrees on that. And so does the NRA by the way.”

“So let’s start from there,” said Nancy.

“Fair point,” said Lewis.

“Thank you,” said Nancy.

Earlier in the meeting when the topic of gun violence came up, Lewis quoted polls showing that gun ownership had declined over the past several decades. He reasoned that it wasn’t guns that were the problems, but the people who were doing the shooting. Lewis didn’t mention the other findings of the studies which showed gun sales were actually up. A Washington Post analysis found that the average American gun owner now owns approximately eight firearms, double the number in the 1990s. A CBS News poll taken in March of this year found that roughly 1 in 5 gun owners owned 10 guns or more.

Gun safety and other issues were on Natalie Churne’s mind when she got to address Lewis.

“I came here today if my life matters. I’m asking because I am a woman of color. I want you to view me as a full person. Not half. Not just a woman. But as a full human being. I’m asking because I work with people with brain injuries. I’m worried about those cuts coming to Medicaid. Disability? Not that far away from any of us. I’m also asking because I want to know why I can’t make my own decisions on my body. I’m also asking if you believe that Black lives matter? I’m so serious because growing up I was asked if I was adopted. The answer is no. But I don’t feel safe in this country. Not safe like a white man does. And I want to know what are you doing to make sure my, our schools are safer. That people do not fear going to school. What are you going to do to make sure I get my rights? Thank you.”

Lewis did talk about her concerns about Medicaid, but didn’t address her concerns about Black Lives Matter, a woman’s right to choose an abortion or the safety of minorities in a society where white males own so many guns.

Outside, there were about 150 people who would have liked to talk to Lewis. Many said they had applied for tickets. Some twice. Some never heard anything back from the congressman’s office. At top is a video sampling of what they had to say.

Michael McIntee

Michael McIntee is a former network TV news executive with more than 30 years of broadcasting experience. He began his broadcasting career at the University of Minnesota's student radio station. He is an expert producer, writer, video editor who has a fondness for new technology but denies that he is a geek. More about Michael McIntee »

Bill Sorem

Bill Sorem is a longtime advertising professional who started with Campbell Mithun and ended up with his own agency. After a tour as a sailing fleet manager in the Virgin Islands he turned to database programming as an independent consultant. He has written sailing guides for the British Virgin Islands and Belize, and written for a number of blogs. In 2010, he volunteered as a citizen journalist with The UpTake and has stayed on as a video reporter.

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