The 2nd District US Congressman was on a metaphorical firing line over gun legislation Tuesday in Chanute.
Freshman Representative Steve Watkins (R-KS), began his town hall visit with slides of his first seven months in office, but the open discussion quickly turned to the violent incidents in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, just days ago.
“I just don’t see why assault rifles are out in the public,” Chanute resident Sam Ward said. “They’re a weapon of war.”
About two dozen people gathered in the Alliance Room of the Memorial Building for a town hall meeting with Watkins. The audience included Neosho County Republican Party Chairman Don Alexander; Kansas 2nd District House Legislator Ken Collins; Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Dennis Franks; and Neosho County Community College President Dr. Brian Inbody.
“The fact that you’re here means that we have something in common,” Watkins said at the start of the gathering.
Watkins serves on the Education and Labor, Veterans Affairs and Foreign Affairs committees, including the subcommittee on overseas terrorism.
Constituents in Chanute voiced opinions on terrorism closer to home. Ward said he wanted to see the Republicans take up “sensible gun control” and said they “jumped in bed” with the National Rifle Association.
His comments were in response to the mass shootings at a Walmart in El Paso Saturday that killed 22 people, and at a Dayton entertainment district that killed nine people.
Cindy Trarbach, a rural Douglas County resident who spoke to Watkins at his town hall meeting there, asked him in Chanute about his votes against two bills that involved background checks for gun purchases.
Watkins said the bills contained “poison pill” measures that proponents knew the other party would vote against.
“That’s a pretty old and predictable trick,” Watkins said, noting that he deals with many bills but does not memorize them, so he could not say what measures he opposed.
“All this sounds like an excuse. When are you going to do something about it?” Chanute resident Dorothy Wallace asked.
Watkins said the shooters in the two incidents would have passed background checks.
“I’m not sure there are a whole lot of policy makers with as much experience at getting shot at,” said Watkins, who served in the military. He said people bring up circular arguments after mass shootings, and he is not sure a collection of laws could eliminate the issue.
“There are a lot of mass shootings that wouldn’t have been stopped,” Watkins said. “Why don’t you advocate for (banning) small handguns?” which he said cause more deaths.
“Why do you need 100 shots to go hunting?” Trarbach said.
Chanute resident David Cooper also addressed the issue of racism, immigration and the mass violence.
“This wall is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” Cooper said at the start of his remarks.
Cooper said he was a veteran of the Vietnam conflict where he served with people of other races and nationalities. He recalled the 1966 mass shootings at the University of Texas, and said he visited there afterwards.
He also cited several violent incidents including the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred Murrah federal building, the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and a Florida school, the shooting at a South Carolina church, and the Las Vegas shooting.
“It’s all white and it’s white supremacists,” Cooper said, adding that the use of bump stocks in Las Vegas bothered him for a week. “And I’m white and I’m proud to be white.”
Watkins said he hoped people could come together to condemn white supremacy.
Earlier in the meeting, Watkins said he has introduced legislation for an agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada to replace the former North American Free Trade Agreement. He also introduced legislation to enhance credit opportunities in rural areas by lowering interest rates for rural borrowers to revitalize the economy, and to leverage interest-free deferments to medical students who do their residencies in rural areas. Those three bills are still awaiting passage. Watkins also introduced a bill, which has passed, to preserve the western blockhouse at the Fort Scott historic site.
Franks raised the issue of rural health care and said 85 to 90 percent of the 107 rural hospitals are critical access facilities, which are reimbursed under a different formula than other hospitals. He said sequestration has eliminated profits, and asked why critical access hospitals couldn’t be taken out of sequestration the way Defense Department sites were.
“I’m a citizen of this community and I want our hospital to be here,” Wallace said.