By the time Ron Wyden wraps up his town hall meetings in Eastern Oregon this week, he’ll have held 887 such get-togethers with his Oregon constituents since first being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996.
One of those town halls was held Tuesday morning in the Umatilla High School gym and it was apparent by Wyden’s mood and performance that he likes the back-and-forth with the people – many of whom on Tuesday were too young to vote.
“Before we get to the questions, I’m just going to talk to you a little bit, say for 45 minutes or so – is that alright?” the senator asked the crowd, scanning their faces to see if they realized it was a joke.
Umatilla School Superintendent Heidi Sipe made sure the students had their chance to ask Wyden questions by suggesting every third question come from a student.
But the senator tossed that format out the window temporarily when the question of guns and school safety came up.
“How many kids here want to talk about guns?” he asked, with about half the students’ hands going up. “Let’s let the students ask a few more questions on this topic before we let the adults jump back in.”
Standing inside the UHS gym, Wyden said times were different when he was their age.
“I spent a lot of time in the gym playing basketball,” he told the students. “It was a time when people would go to sporting events, concerts and school and you didn’t have the type of gun violence that we have now. I don’t subscribe to the idea of parents having to send their kids to school and worrying if they’re safe.”
One student asked Wyden the simplest of questions that seems to defy anything but a complicated answer: How do you make schools safe?
Wyden listed several steps he said would help curb gun violence in schools and society. He said we need to keep guns out of the hands of people with a mental illness, those with a history of domestic violence and anyone on the terror watch list.
“It doesn’t make sense that we won’t let potential terrorists fly on planes but we let them buy guns,” Wyden said.
Wyden also suggests banning bump stocks which he said are designed “to kill people faster.” He also recommends lifting restrictions placed on studying gun violence and another sure to get the attention of gun rights advocates.
“I don’t think military-style guns should be on our store shelves,” he said, referring to guns like the AR-15 used in many of the mass shootings in America, including the Parkland shootings earlier this year. “All of this can be done within the Second Amendment,” he added. “I really want to make this time different.”
Beyond guns, Wyden also addressed a few other topics including veterans and farming. One woman, the wife of 30-year veteran, said she was concerned with the idea floating around that the Veterans Administration should be privatized.
“If I had my way, every day would be Veterans Day in Oregon because of their sacrifices,” Wyden said. “I am dead set against this privatization idea. I think it would be big mistake. The program needs a lot of improvement, but I’m going to do everything I can to stop the privatization of the VA.”
Wyden also gave a shout-out to the local farmers.
“Oregon does a lot of stuff well, but what we do best is grow things,” he said. “We ought to grow it in Oregon, make it in Oregon, add value to it in Oregon and then ship it around the world.”
The senator also sang the praises of Umatilla High School and the academic success of its students, particularly the robotics program, which he was made an honorary member.
“This school is the real deal when it comes to education,” Wyden said.