Presidential candidate Eric Swalwell held a town hall Monday night in the Cambridge Building at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.
Though it was a campaign stop that touched on several issues, the focus of the evening was on preventing gun violence. Posters with the words “End gun violence” were hung throughout the room.
Swalwell, a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives from California, was joined on stage by Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people died and 17 others were injured in February 2018. Since then, Kasky has become an activist against gun violence, helping to organize the March for Our Lives nationwide student protest a month after the Parkland shooting.
Former Iowa House District 82 Rep. Phil Miller introduced Swalwell and Kasky to the crowd, after members of Fairfield High School’s choir sang the national anthem. Miller related how, on the day of the Parkland shooting, Kasky and his classmates heard a fire alarm, but were instructed to remain in the building, where they waited for an hour until they were rescued.
Kasky spoke about how the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, in which 15 people died, shocked the public because mass shootings were so rare. However, he said that mass shootings have become so common that even he, a survivor of a mass shooting, has become desensitized to them.
“People are not shocked anymore,” he said. “I assume that my kids will have to go through active shooter drills. We shouldn’t have to worry about that.”
Are mass shootings on rise?
The Ledger attempted to ascertain whether mass shootings are on the rise, and found mixed data that requires deeper inquiry. A study in Springer’s Journal of Child and Family Studies conducted by Antonis Katsiyannis of Clemson University presented evidence there have been more deaths from mass school shootings (where four or more people die, excluding the shooter) in the 21st century than the entire 20th century.
Katsiyannis put the number killed in the 20th century at 55, and the number killed in the 21st century at 66 as of April 2018.
On the other hand, James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, has presented data showing that both the number of school shooting incidents and number of deaths from shootings fell between 1992-2015. Fox argues that school shootings are not an epidemic, that four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today, and that shootings are a less common way of dying than pool drownings or bicycle accidents.
During his portion of the town hall, Swalwell said he does not want to ban guns and in fact recently took a group of veterans to the shooting range.
“Shooting at the range and hunting are not at odds with taking steps to become a safer community,” he said. “We’re always told after a mass shooting that it’s too soon to talk about it. But if they happen all the time, when can we talk about it?”
Swalwell said that gun violence has played a defining role in his life. He graduated from high school the same year as the Columbine mass shooting in 1999. The mass shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 27 people died including the perpetrator, prompted Swalwell to run for Congress. He assumed the event was so tragic that it would spur the federal government to enact gun control measures, but no measures were passed.
Swalwell said his gun safety plan includes the following key elements: pass universal background checks so that firearms transactions must be recorded and go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; buy back 15 million assault rifles so these guns are not so readily available, calling them weapons that belong only on the battlefield; make gun manufacturers liable to damages.
Swalwell acknowledged that deaths from assault weapons constitute a small part of total gun deaths, but added, “They account for 100 percent of the fear students feel.”
The Rand Corporation published a report on gun violence in 2018, noting that the majority of gun crimes are committed with handguns. For instance, of the roughly 9,600 firearm-related murders reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2015, about 3 percent involved a rifle of any kind, though it’s hard to be sure of that statistic since in a few thousand cases, the type of gun involved in the murder was not specified.
Brian Glover, a member of the Libertyville Fire Department who also works for Midwest Ambulance, asked a question during the Q and A portion of the town hall. Glover said he did not agree with Swalwell’s assessment that guns were at the root of the problem. Instead, Glover argued that mental health problems underlie mass shootings.
Kasky agreed that mental health was a big part of the problem, and mentioned that the Parkland shooter received counseling for behavioral problems.
Swalwell said mental health problems can’t explain why the United States experiences so many more gun deaths than Australia, Canada and China, which he said surely must have their own mental health issues. He said the difference is that Americans have easier access to weapons.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation published a study in 2018 looking at gun deaths by country. It found the U.S. ranks 30th worldwide in gun-related homicides per capita, but has the second highest rate of gun-related suicides.
The Ledger asked Swalwell for his thoughts on the U.S. Supreme Court case of the District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), in which the court struck down the district’s ban on handguns and requirement that shotguns and rifles be kept unloaded, disassembled or bound by a trigger lock. The court argued these restrictions violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Swalwell said he does not oppose the ownership of handguns, shotguns or long rifles.
“I can understand why communities with so many deaths would do something like that [handgun ban] when they see the federal government doing nothing,” he said. “I’m not seeking to limit handgun ownership.”