Questions on gun violence and the 2nd Amendment dominated a contentious town hall forum with Senator Joni Ernst in Johnston this morning. Over half the audience members who asked Ernst about various policies pressed her on her gun rights stance.
Though Ernst scheduled her Polk County forum at 7:30 AM on a Saturday, a crowd of about 150 showed up to the suburban Wallace Elementary School auditorium. About two dozen Ernst supporters, decked out in campaign t-shirts, gathered in the parking lot beforehand and cheered and encouraged Ernst as she spoke.
But they were considerably outnumbered by the many gun safety advocates who showed up, as well as health care activists and some of the usual left-leaning Des Moines-area crowd.
One of the most striking moments came early on with the second questioner, a local teacher.
“As part of my teacher training this past week, I was asked to listen to popping sounds and then determine if they were gun shots or not,” said Ellie Holland, a speech and language pathologist teacher. “I was then asked to be trained to man a family reunification center to provide counseling to parents seeking their children following a catastrophic event.”
“My question to you today, Senator, is when can I plan to get back to trainings that simply teach children to read and write?” she asked.
After some applause from the crowd, Ernst replied as she did throughout all the questions this morning, talking about laws already on the books and calling for more action on mental health care.
“This is a very, very difficult time, and we have gone through many of these,” Ernst began. “I remember going through all types of drills as a child growing up.”
Parts of the crowd yelled out “not like this,” along with intermittent “do something!” shouts.
Ernst mentioned her recent town hall in Aplington, Iowa, where a popular, well-known football coach was gunned down by a former player with mental health problems ten years ago.
“A lot of the incidents that we see do come back to mental illness,” Ernst said. “We need to make sure that those that are showing signs of instability are able to receive treatment.”
“We are short counselors, we are short psychologists,” she added.
“We are short congresspeople that take action!” one man in the crowd shouted in response.
In other answers, Ernst would return to her focus on enforcing current laws. She also raised concerns about due process rights — as did two audience members — with red flag laws.
“I am a proud supporter of the 2nd Amendment, and there are reasonable lines that can be drawn, and we do have laws that are in place right now that do limit who can own what type of weapon,” Ernst said later on. “So, those laws do need to be enforced. My rights as a law-abiding citizen should not be infringed upon by our federal government.”
Ernst’s answers were not sufficient to Holland, who told Starting Line that she has gotten increasingly involved in politics since the 2016 election. Her recent experience with the active shooter training is what convinced her to come to Ernst’s forum.
“It was the last straw yesterday when we were asked to consider being part of the parent reunification centers,” Holland explained. “So now educators are being not only asked to deal with a possible live shooter in our schools, we’re also being asked to deal with the aftermath of that.”
She noted that she was specifically asked to help with a potential reunification center since, because she deals with special education, she doesn’t have a full classroom to protect during such a situation.
“I’ve been a teacher for 30 years, and I’m just shocked at the things the children have to deal with and the things the teachers have to deal with,” Holland said. “I feel like there’s things that can be done by our leaders that can protect our children in our schools that aren’t being done.”
Several people in Moms Demand Action t-shirts thanked Holland as they made their way out of the event.
“I feel like the safety of children in general in the United States has been on decline,” the teacher said. “I’ve seen anxiety in children as young as preschool and kindergarten. They’re afraid to come to school. Why? Well, they watch the news. We try to shield them from it, but they know. I feel like it’s time to put partisanship aside and focus on our children.”
Ernst’s answers to her question and others didn’t satisfy Holland.
“I’m worried not only her answer to me, but throughout the day she didn’t seem to budge an inch on things like weapons that can kill 30 people in 30 seconds,” she said.
“It sickens me,” Holland added. “Things need to change. That’s why I’m here.”
by Pat Rynard
Photos by Julie Fleming