Students want end to gun violence
The main thing on the minds of Madras High School students at U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's town hall last Friday was gun violence and safety in schools. The event drew a crowd of about 250 students and 100 community members.
Wyden fielded at least half a dozen questions from students on what can be done to prevent school shootings, in addition to a wide range of questions from other community members, at his 877th Oregon town hall March 9, at the Madras Performing Arts Center.
Responding to a student's comment that he was "sick and tired of hearing about shootings in schools," Wyden said that other students in rural Oregon are also speaking up, including a Hood River sophomore, Eva Jones, who spoke at a town hall Feb. 24.
"She said, 'We're tired of looking for cabinets to hide in; we're tired of being afraid of walking by big windows,'" said Wyden, who called the 16-year-old three days later to ask her to testify before a group of 15 Senate leaders. "She electrified the room."
Her testimony is on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4hGF4fT-iU.
Wyden said that different states have different requirements for purchasing guns, but background checks need to be "loophole-free," with "no exceptions for gun shows and private sales."
"This has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans, liberal or conservative; this is plain old common sense," he said. "We're better than this. We can turn this arround."
"What I will be proposing, what I'm advocating, is that we link all these (state) systems," he said, adding, "because these guns move interstate. We've got to make it national."
"The second piece is prosecution," he said. "It's about sending a message of deterrence."
When another student suggested metal detectors in schools, Wyden commented, "I've taken the position that there's something in between turning our schools into an armed camp and doing nothing. We certainly ought to provide funds for security."
As for arming teachers, Wyden said, "I have real reservations about arming teachers in the classroom. Just factoring in accidents, it might end up hurting students. I'd much rather have trained, professional law enforcement people in and around schools."
Gun violence wasn't the only topic of interest to students. One student asked about global warming, and another, about secret government agencies.
"The president pulled us out of the global effort to work on this; I think that's a mistake," said Wyden, about the Paris climate accord, which has 175 participating countries working to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. "They're voluntary targets, folks. We ought to be promoting renewable energy."
In response to the student's question on secret agencies, Wyden said that as a member of the Intelligence Committee, "I've led the fight to make a lot of what's classified declassified."
Distinguishing between sources and methods, he said, "Sources need to be kept secret, but law needs to be public."
Adults in the Central Oregon community also had questions for the senator at his annual meeting.
Scottie Henry, of Madras, a naturalized U.S. citizen, expressed concern about the DACA program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — which ended March 5.
The program allowed certain adults who were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthdays to apply for a renewable two-year deferral from deportation. Across the country, about 800,000 young adults are in the program, including more than 11,000 in Oregon. On Sept. 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the program and said that on March 5, those people should begin to "self-deport."
Henry, who was born in Scotland, said that obtaining citizenship is expensive, and "not an easy task."
As the son of parents who fled Nazi Germany and became U.S. citizens, Wyden commented, "We are a nation of immigrants. These are young people brought to this country as children; they have grown up here. They want to make a difference. They have done nothing wrong."
In his efforts to seek justice for DACA recipients, Wyden has been working on a compromise with Republicans. "I detest this idea of the wall," he said, referring to the president's plans to build a wall on the southern border of the U.S. Nevertheless, Wyden said he would support funding in order to reach agreement on DACA.
"I'm in it until there's justice for our DREAMers," he said, using the term based on the bipartisan DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors — first introduced in 2001. The act, which would give DREAMers, who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, a path to citizenship, has been reintroduced numerous times, but never passed.
Redmond resident Judy Tomera was upset by the closing of the Bend sorting center for the U.S. Postal Service. "That means that letters, even going to your neighbors, are going to go to Portland."
"You're talking about something that is really fundamental to our state," said Wyden. "Are our rural communities going to be turned into sacrifice zones? We're battling for health care; we're going to keep fighting and refighting these battles."
Speaking to students about net neutrality, Wyden explained, "After you pay an access fee (for internet), you get to go where you want, when you want, how you want. That's how you get information for jobs, for term papers."
Wyden is concerned that the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, will affect that ability with the reversal of net neutrality, which occurred in December.
"He wants to make you pay," said Wyden. "That's the road to digital serfdom, and I'm going to block it."
On the topic of health care, Wyden pointed out three recent bipartisan victories: the extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program, and the passage of the Families First Act and the Chronic Care Act, all passed in February as part of the federal budget.
CHIP provides grants to states to administer health insurance for families with children; Families First reforms foster care by providing funds to help keep families together; and the Chronic Care Act helps Medicare beneficiaries living with chronic conditions.
"We got the biggest change in health care in years," said Wyden.
Dr. Tom Manning, of Madras, wanted to know what can be done to restore the Affordable Care Act, which was enacted in 2010, but weakened when the individual mandate was repealed in December 2017.
"Every week, I see people who aren't doing as well," said Manning. "They can't afford their medication."
"The cost of medicine is too high," said Wyden, who supported the ACA, and also wants to end the restriction that keeps Medicare from bargaining to keep medication costs down. "The problem is the federal government has been unwilling to play hard ball."
Susan Guerin, president of the Warm Springs American Legion Auxiliary, asked Wyden for support on veterans' issues, such as health care. Guerin called forward two senior members of the auxiliary, Viola Govenor, the group's chaplain, and Gladys Grant, the treasurer, as well as members of the VFW Auxiliary in Madras, Cheryl Lohman, treasurer, Rose Canga and Scottie Henry, who worked in the local veterans office.
In response to Guerin's request that he serve on the Committee on Veterans Affairs, Wyden said that he has remained on the Senate Budget Committee so that he can influence funding for veterans' programs.
"That's the first stop to get the money for the services you're talking about," he said.