Gun issues dominate Wyden meeting

By Observer Upload April 05, 2013 10:27 am


U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., answers questions from La Grande High School students and community members at his town hall meeting  Thursday morning in the LHS auditorium. Chris Baxter/The Observer
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., answers questions from La Grande High School students and community members at his town hall meeting Thursday morning in the LHS auditorium. Chris Baxter/The Observer
  Senator Ron Wyden Town Hall Meeting - YouTube 

by Bill Rautenstrauch/The Observer

Talk about gun control dominated Thursday as U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., appeared at La Grande High School for a town hall-style meeting with students and community members.

Wyden fielded questions on a variety of topics related to federal government, but questions about gun control legislation surfaced repeatedly. Not long into the session, the senator was asked to spell out his position.

Wyden said that above all, he favors creation of an effective background checking system, one that would keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

He brought up the 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, saying it might have been prevented if authorities in that state had been more vigilant. He said many people were aware of the shooter’s mental health problems, but nobody connected the dots. “If there’d been a background check system that works, that guy couldn’t have gotten a gun,” Wyden said.

As for proposals to ban or restrict ownership of assault rifles and high capacity magazines, Wyden said he’s reserving judgment until he sees specific legislation. He said at this point he is “favorably inclined” toward restrictions on high capacity magazines, but doesn’t think a ban on assault weapons would be effective.

“I want to see the language on both bills before I make a decision,” he said.

Ken McCormack, a Vietnam veteran and the current commander of the High Valley VFW Post in Union, wanted to know how tightened background checks might affect veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. McCormack said many veterans with the condition, those who are being treated, are fully functioning citizens capable of responsible gun ownership.

Wyden said McCormack’s point was a good one that needs to be considered by people writing laws in Washington, D.C.

“You’ve got to make sure you balance rights and responsibilities. We’ve got to take some time to do it right,” he said.

Another veteran, Ed Harris of
La Grande, told Wyden he is opposed to bans. “Why can you pass a law that can’t be enforced? The laws we have aren’t being enforced, so you’re going to make new ones?” Harris said.

Wyden said one reason he leans toward restrictions on high capacity magazines is that law enforcement authorities in Newton, Conn., believe that if the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter had had to stop and reload, fewer children would have died.

On enforcement of such restrictions, Wyden didn’t give a concrete answer, beyond saying law enforcement and citizens might work together to “send a message that we are trying to bring about a new day.” He again said he wants to look at proposed legislation before coming to a decision on how to vote.

During the almost two-hour session, Wyden took pains to make sure students in the audience had chances to ask questions. Before throwing the floor open, though, he said education, in particular higher education, is one of his priorities.

He said he is sponsoring legislation called “Know Before You Go,” a bill to ensure young people entering college would know about student loans and earnings potential in specified fields.

Wyden said larger issues currently being grappled with, especially Medicare, impact chances young people have to be educated. He said that if Medicare fiscal issues aren’t resolved, Medicare could end up taking the entire federal budget.

“For the next 20 years, 10,000 people a day will become eligible for Medicare,” he said.

Other issues brought up by students during the town hall included legalization of marijuana, gay marriage, sequestering and tensions in North Korea.

One female student asked Wyden to comment on a display in downtown La Grande this week, where a group in front of the post office displayed a picture of President Obama wearing a Hitler-style mustache. The picture had the word “Impeach” emblazoned across the top. Wyden said he hadn’t known about the display.

“It’s a disgusting practice that ought to be unacceptable in any community and in our country. You can disagree all you want, but that’s disgusting,” Wyden said.

At the start of the town hall, Wyden introduced Jerry Blankenship, a local Korean War veteran, and gave Blankenship an award of recognition for his service. The senator said he is sponsoring a resolution that honors those who fought in the so-called “Forgotten War.”

“Korea was a tough, tough conflict. One veteran told me you don’t know cold till you’ve faced a Korean winter. The resolution is that this will be a year of remembrance for our Korean War veterans,” he said.