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Federal, state candidates discuss gun reform at student-led town hall event



Seventeen-year-old Sarah Hannon, a Bloomington High School North student, had a goal for Bloomington’s Project Town Hall event: to start an exchange of information between constituents and their elected officials. 

“Although it’s easy to forget, they work for us — not the other way around,” Hannon said.

Hannon is a member of Bloomington Students Against Assault Weapons. The student-led advocacy group organized a town hall Saturday night where about 100 community members, politicians and high school students got the chance to ask candidates and elected officials questions.

While the event focused on gun control, representatives also answered questions on the topics of mental health, taxes and the opioid crisis. 

The national Town Hall for Our Lives initiative comes after the student-led March for Our Lives, an event that brought together people in more than 800 cities across the country to march for gun reform. The national march and town hall initiative were led by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a February school shooting left 17 dead.

The Bloomington students invited 23 federal and state lawmakers. Three federal candidates and six state candidates — all Democrats — showed up. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, and Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Indiana, were among those who did not show up. The federal candidates who were there were Dan Canon, Liz Watson and Rob Chatlos, all running to represent Indiana's 9th Congressional district.

In their opening statements, candidates thanked the students who put the event together. 

Indiana Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, praised the 46 members of the Bloomington Students Against Assault Weapons for going to Washington, D.C., last month to take part in the March for Our Lives. 

“But in the end, you have to convert your protest into political power, and what you’re doing tonight is the first step in that process,” Pierce said. 

One member of the audience started his questioning by asking the candidates to raise their hand if they could promise not to accept any funds from gun manufacturers or supporters.

Every candidate raised their hand. Some raised both.

But some questions were more complicated. The night’s first question focused on why the United States has such a large gun violence program even though the U.S.’s mental health statistics aren’t higher than other countries.

Chatlos said it’s simple — the United States has lots of guns. He added there are going to be new alliances between all stakeholders if citizens want the problem to go away.

Watson agreed, saying southern Indiana has a mental health professional shortage. But the gun violence problem is more complicated than that.

“If we want to reduce gun violence, we need to pass common sense gun reform,” Watson said. “That’s something that other countries have done that we have not.”

Pierce said it’s often convenient for people to use mental health as an excuse for gun violence. 

Another question focused on candidates’ views on taxes and how they relate to guns.

Canon said he was wary about that idea. Taxing guns could cause them to become a luxury in the U.S. and could disadvantage groups that aren’t wealthy.

Watson said it’s important to continue to support schools and teachers since they are often the ones to deal with the fallout of larger issues, such as the opioid crisis.

“There is nothing more responsible than investing in our young people,” she said.

She added it’s important, when talking about gun reform, that the conversation needs to include all gun violence, from school shootings to homicides to police shootings of unarmed black men.

Ruth Nall, 18, from Bloomington High School North said when the students got back from Washington, D.C., they started thinking, “What’s next?” The students heard about the national Town Hall for Our Lives initiative and jumped at the opportunity to organize their own. 

Nall said after the Parkland shooting, high school students stopped feeling comfortable in school. 

“The Parkland students stood up and said they weren’t going to let this go,” she said. “We’re not going to let this go.”

Connor Smith, 18, from Bloomington High School North, said he hopes the town hall makes more people aware of where their elected officials stand on certain issues. 

“People are sometimes ignorant on what their politicians are doing and thinking,” Smith said. “It’s important for people to know what they stand for."

Hannon said conversations about difficult topics, such as gun violence and mass shootings, have to start somewhere. 

“When no one talks about it, it happens,” Hannon said. 

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