Constituents question Andy Harris on guns at town hall
JOPPA — U.S. Rep. Andy Harris’s immigration town hall meeting was usurped with pointed questions about gun control from constituents March 1 at the Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Hall. The crowd’s mood was contentious even before the congressman took the microphone, as one man in the audience criticized Harris, R-Md.-1st, when Press Secretary Jacque Clark announced a change in the usual meeting format. “His M.O. is that he shows us a PowerPoint and has a presentation that eats up time and leaves little time for a discussion,” said Kevin Jones of North East. “That is not a town hall, that’s a sham. We have concerns as Americans, I’m not talking Republicans or Democrats.” Raucous applause erupted after he spoke, punctuated by boos from others in the audience. Instead of a presentation, Harris opted to take questions, moderated by a third party, on a call-by-number basis. Guests were asked to keep their comments civil, although the congressman was often interrupted by shouts and protest signs. Opening questions prompted Harris to explain his stance on a number of gun-related issues, as many constituents were concerned about semi-automatic rifles in Maryland after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. last month. Jesse Wasmer of Kingsville, a former counselor at Perry Hall High School, told Harris that he tackled a student who had a doublebarrel shotgun in 2012. Robert W. Gladden Jr., who shot one classmate in the back, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. “The only different about my experience and Parkland was the type of weapon,” Wasmer told the congressman. “If he had an assault rifle, I would have been in a much different situation, as would 500 students in a school in your district.” Harris argued that assault rifles are banned in Maryland, although several people shouted that there were exceptions. State law grandfathers in long guns or copycat weapons that were possessed before Oct. 1, 2013. Licensed firearm dealers may still sell long guns that fall under that criteria if they were purchased before the cutoff date. The congressman made it clear he does not support an assault rifle ban that is “going door-to-door” and collecting them. “It’s not the Bill of Needs, it’s the Bill of Rights,” he said among shouts. “The Second Amendment is a right guar- anteed in the Constitution. If you want to change it, convince enough legislators and states to change it. Until then, it’s a part of this country.” Harris supports enforcing the gun control laws that are already on the books, arguing that the 342 homicides in Baltimore last year were not done with assault rifles. The problem, he said, lies in the justice system as 75 percent of those charged with possession of a gun in commission with a crime were likely to serve under the maximum sentencing requirements. The remaining 25 percent, Harris said, “had charges dropped.” “If you really want gun control, get the people who pick up a gun and use it against another human being and put them a way for a long, long time,” he said. For a time, the discussion returned to the intended topic of immigration. One man who operates a landscaping business asked Harris for his support behind the H-2B Visa program, which allows employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis, so he could continue to work fullystaffed for the summer. Reports put 100,000 applicants for the H-2B visa, which dwarfs the congressionally-mandated cap of 33,000 for this fiscal year. Harris told the crowd that he would work to slightly increase the cap and focus on rewriting the immigration rules to better suit the needs in his district, as several businesses depend on these workers. “We know you can’t fill these jobs,” Harris said. “I support legal immigration. The reason why the (Trump) administration was so reticent was because we simply don’t have a mechanism to enforce our visa system. Most of our illegal immigrants cross legally with a visa, and overstay. Our system actually punishes lawabiding business owners … and I’ll work on it.” Two high school students from Cecil County engaged Harris in a heated back-andforth exchange about gun violence. Alison Kinney of Port Deposit argued that assault rifles raised the body count in mass shootings. She also asked how much campaign money had he received from the National Rifle Association. “The fact of the matter is deaths in Maryland from AR-15s is almost zero,” Harris said. “Gun violence doesn’t happen on the Eastern or western shore of Maryland.” “I have raised $10 million over the last eight years,” Harris continued, shouting. “Do you really think my vote in Congress depends on $20,000 in donations (from the NRA)? No, they depend on my parents coming from communist countries where they were not allowed to have a firearm. Alison, you are lucky to be in America.” Lindsey Darling of Rising Sun asked what he was doing “to stop the Florida shooting from ever happening again.” Harris told her that she was asking the government to solve this problem, and it failed “miserably in Florida” as the school, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI failed to act when others reported alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz’ behavior. The congressman would support a “properly-written red flag law” that would allow mental health providers to report a patient to a family member as a potential danger to themselves or others. That way, a judge could temporarily restrict their Second Amendment rights. It would take “a few steps” because of privacy laws and Harris still wants to protect constitutional rights. “Don’t you think he would have killed a lot less people with a knife than with an assault rifle?” Darling asked. “Let me ask you, what’s an assault rifle? I’ve been in the military, so I’m kind of familiar,” returned Harris, who served in the Navy Medical and the U.S. Naval Reserve active-duty during Operation Desert Storm. The crowd heckled Harris, some asking why he was embarrassing a teenager. “You want to restrict someone’s rights to obtain a firearm, but you’re not going to know the difference?” Harris told the crowd. After another uproar from the crowd, Harris then told Darling that their disagreement is part of what “makes America beautiful.”
Lindsey Darling, of Rising Sun, center left, is joined by Alison Kinney, of Port Deposit, center right, and others attend Rep. Andy Harris at a March 1 town hall.