(Updated at 5:05 p.m.) What started with polite applause ended with jeers and shouts, as Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) hosted a panel discussion on gun violence at Washington-Lee High School Monday night.
Hundreds turned out at the school’s auditorium for the discussion, with gun supporters — wearing “Guns Save Lives” stickers — outnumbering gun control advocates about 3:2, based on the volume of completing applause points.
Among the panelists on stage with Moran were:
- David Chapman, a retired ATF Special Agent and advisor to Mayors Against Illegal Guns
- Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
- Earl Cook, Alexandria Police Chief
- Jonathan Lowy, of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence
- Karen Marangi, of Mayors Against Illegal Guns
The event was titled “Preventing Another Newtown: A Conversation on Gun Violence in America,” and the Newtown, Aurora and Tuscon mass shootings were repeatedly referenced.
While expressing general support for the Second Amendment right to own firearms, Moran and the panelists made the case for additional gun control measures, including universal background checks, an renewed assault weapons ban, magazine capacity limits and mandated reporting of stolen guns. Possible changes to the treatment of those with mental illness were also discussed.
“We hope those of you in the room will really help us to move this, so we can make our communities safer,” Marangi said of some of the gun control legislation that has been proposed in Congress.
Many in the audience, however, were there to voice another opinion. After a generally polite reception for a opening statements by the panelists, the question and answer session brought a different tone.
A majority of speakers spoke strongly in support of gun rights and against additional gun laws, and some expressed fear that the government’s ultimate goal in gun legislation is to gradually ban gun ownership. Moran and the panel’s response to the audience statements and questions often drew boos and shouts.
Gun supporters said that firearms make communities safer, not more dangerous, by allowing law-abiding gun owners to defend themselves and those around them.
“Congressman, I know you’re pro-choice, but why aren’t you pro-choice when it comes to self-defense for women?” said one speaker to loud applause. “Why don’t you guys listen to the young rape victims in Colorado when they said that if they had a gun it would have prevented their attacker.”
Other gun supporters called for the elimination of “gun-free zones,” particularly around schools.
“As you can see, there are a lot of people here who are legitimate, law-abiding gun owners,” said a man who asked fellow gun owners to stand, before voicing support for allowing teachers to carry guns. “We would be more than happy to defend innocent lives should a psycho… come into an area to commit an act of violence.”
“I would be opposed to teachers carrying guns in the classroom, and I would not want my children in a classroom where their teacher was carrying a gun,” Moran said in response, to applause from gun control advocates in the audience.
“I know this community well enough to know that the people standing up in this auditorium are not representative of the majority of the residents, ” he continued, to more applause as well as some jeers.
Moran and the panelists drew the most jeers when they brought up “assault weapons.”
“What does that even mean?” some audience members shouted, about the term. Some speakers — those who stood in line to speak — made the case that the term assault weapon is often used to refer to a gun that might look menacing but isn’t significantly different, functionality-wise, from a standard semiautomatic handgun.
“I don’t agree that there’s a need for individuals to have military-style assault weapons,” Moran retorted. “I don’t believe that we need guns that can hold in excess of ten bullets.”
Adding to the urgency of passing gun control laws, Moran said, is a projection that gun deaths will exceed traffic fatalities by 2015. That expected milestone is partially due to rising gun deaths, but mostly due to advances in car safety that started in the 1970s — safety improvements, he said, that came about after being mandated by law.
Speaking to reporters after the forum, Moran said he expected a negative response from the crowd.
“I fully expected this and it’s par for the course for people who feel this strongly,” he said. “For many gun owners, this is defining of who they are. They feel it’s a matter of self esteem, that it’s important for them to operate weapons.
“I think that there are groups such as the National Rifle Association and others who have a vested interest in convincing gun owners that the ultimate objective is to take all of their guns from them,” Moran said. “And that has spurred a near-paranoia, and I think we witnessed some of that tonight.”
Moran said his views on gun matters weren’t swayed by the response from the audience.
“I heard a lot of emotion, I didn’t hear anything particularly convincing,” the Congressman said.
Despite the jeers, many gun supporters who spoke thanked Rep. Moran for holding the forum as part of their statements. Some also engaged in discussions with the panelists after the event.
Asked about how he felt about the forum, one of the gun supporters, who only identified himself as “David,” said he appreciated the dialogue.
“I thought it was a good conversation,” David said. “There’s room for listening on both sides, probably.”
David said he didn’t think gun owners should be targeted for new laws, when there is plenty of violence committed with other types of weapons. He said he might be receptive to the idea of universal background checks, but other proposed measures, like an assault weapons ban, would be a non-starter for him.
“They’re saying the AR-15 doesn’t have a legitimate use, but I was hunting with one in the woods three months ago,” David said. “I just don’t think [a ban] is going to do any good.”
Moran has proposed two pieces of gun control legislation: the NRA Members’ Gun Safety Act, a package of provisions that Morans says is supported by over two-thirds of NRA members, and the Tiahrt Restrictions Repeal Act, which would remove restrictions on certain gun-related law enforcement actions.
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