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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers defends right to own guns, criticizes Donald Trump’s rhetoric in Spokane town hall

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers listens to a constituent’s question during a “Conversation with Cathy” Town Hall held Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, on the campus of Gonzaga University. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers faced a town hall crowd on Wednesday evening at Gonzaga University angry about continued gun violence and concerned about the recent rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

The eight-term congresswoman addressed a crowd of roughly 100 people, saying she understood their anger and anxiety.

She said she couldn’t support a ban on assault-style weapons but would support the expansion of so-called “red flag” laws that would restrict access to guns for those exhibiting warning signs.

She also continued to condemn Trump’s personal attacks against her colleagues in the House of Representatives, but said later she didn’t believe those attacks were motivated by racism.

“We need to be focusing on recognizing the value and the dignity of every person,” McMorris Rodgers said in response to one of several questions about the leader of her party’s recent comments directed at political opponents coming from communities of color. “And I do not believe that we should be talking down at one another, name-calling. We need to be treating each other with respect and with dignity.”

Trump has come under fire from Democratic presidential candidates, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, in recent weeks for his criticism of lawmakers who belong to ethnic minority groups, suggesting in a tweet several should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

McMorris Rodgers, after Wednesday’s town hall, said she didn’t believe Trump’s remarks contained racial animus, but that in the wake of the shooting in El Paso, where it is believed the perpetrator harbored racist views, it was the responsibility of the country to continue speaking out against white nationalism.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what the president intended,” McMorris Rodgers told The Spokesman-Review when asked whether she believed his comments directed at her colleagues were racist. “The president has said he doesn’t support the white nationalists.”

Her answers to questions about Trump’s speech drew an impassioned response from the small but vocal crowd at McMorris Rodgers’ annual public event in Spokane. Joel Alejandro Velasco, who identified himself as a military veteran and doctoral student at Washington State University in Pullman, drew the largest response of the evening after accusing the congresswoman of speaking empty words.

“If you really stood against the president’s hate against your fellow congresswomen, you would have voted for the resolution condemning the president’s language against your fellow congresswomen,” Velasco said, referring to a vote taken up by the House shortly after Trump’s tweet to condemn his language as racist and bringing a cheer from the crowd. “So forgive us, ma’am, if we don’t believe you.”

Velasco said later that he didn’t believe the event’s format, which allowed 19 randomly selected people one minute to ask a question, enabled a free exchange of ideas with an elected representative.

“She’s how I can interact with this madness,” said Velasco, who said he has dual citizenship in the United States and Mexico and has family in El Paso. “These types of forums are ridiculous, outdated and they’re meant to control.”

McMorris Rodgers said after the event, her 13th in the district this year, that it was important to hold them to get a sense of her constituents’ views.

“It’s fundamental to being a representative, that you listen and you make yourself available to hear the questions, the concerns and get the ideas from the people,” the congresswoman said.

Velasco, and several others, also questioned the congresswoman’s position on gun laws following a pair of shootings in both El Paso and Dayton over the weekend that left 31 people dead and dozens more injured. McMorris Rodgers, who started the event with a prayer for the victims of the shootings, said that while she has supported legislation to enhance the nation’s background check database and to give more money to school districts to beef up security, she wouldn’t support a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons.

“It is targeting the law-abiding citizens,” she said of such legislation, which a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll showed had a majority of support among not only Americans but also those who identified as Republicans. “There are deeper issues at work here.”

The congresswoman also voted against a pair of resolutions that made it to the floor of the House of Representatives earlier this year that would have instituted background checks on all gun purchases in the United States, and one that would have lengthened by a week the waiting period before a licensed dealer could sell a firearm. Both of those bills are now sitting in the U.S. Senate, where GOP Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has refused to bring them to the floor for a vote.

McMorris Rodgers did express support for expanding laws, like the one on the books in Washington, that give the courts the ability to restrict access to firearms based on concerns brought forth by family members and law enforcement.

“We need to do it in a way that is going to ensure due process and protect the rights of law-abiding citizens,” the congresswoman said.

Colton Schons, an incoming junior at North Central High School in Spokane, asked McMorris Rodgers to explain her acceptance of financial support from the National Rifle Association.

“I support the Second Amendment. I support the Constitutional amendment that supports the right to bear arms for law-abiding citizens,” McMorris Rodgers responded. In 2018, the national gun rights organization contributed $3,000 to the congresswoman’s re-election campaign and she received a 93% approval rating from the group, according to the nonpartisan voter research firm VoteSmart.

Schons said after the town hall that he wasn’t impressed with the congresswoman’s answer.

“If she felt like she had nothing to cover up, she would have fully explained it to me,” Schons said.

McMorris Rodgers was also asked how much she had read of the report prepared by special counsel Robert Mueller, who was tasked with investigating Russia’s interference into the 2016 presidential election and also whether Trump or members of his team obstructed justice into that probe and whether she’d support impeachment proceedings based on its findings.

“I’ve read parts of the Mueller report,” McMorris Rodgers said. “There was not the findings of collusion or obstruction of justice that would lead to impeachment. An impeachment offense is when there’s criminal offenses, and that would be the case with any president.”

The congresswoman has another town hall scheduled for Thursday afternoon in Colville. It will be held beginning at 3 p.m. at the Stevens County Sheriff’s Ambulance Training Center, 425 N. Highway.