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Local News: Spotlight shone on gun violence at Grassley visit (6/3/22)

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(Photo Courtesy of Aleisa Schat)
Rock Valley Fifth Grade Teacher Kiersten Sexe addresses U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley on gun violence at his Sioux County stop as part of his 99 county tour.

ROCK VALLEY — Emotions were running high at a well-attended town hall meeting on Tuesday in Rock Valley, where around 60 Sioux County residents convened at Parkview Event Center to pose questions to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). 

A number of issues were addressed at the meeting, but a clear theme emerged: gun violence.  

The first to address the issue was a fifth-grade teacher from Rock Valley, 30-year-old Kiersten Sexe. She had a baby squirming on her hip as she spoke, and her voice broke with emotion.

“A lot of the kids that are the same age as kids in my class didn’t get to go home last week, when they were shot in Texas,” Sexe said. “I don’t care at this point — Republican, Democrat, everyone’s got their arguments about what we should do. But it seems like the arguments are all that gets talked about, and nothing happens, at all.”

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Sexe went on to address Grassley.

“If it’s mental health, if it’s guns — what can we do now? Why can’t we at least — at least — require universal background checks? That doesn’t seem to be a controversial thing,” Sexe said. 

A number of attendees in the crowd broke out in applause at the conclusion of her statement. 

 

National problem

The recent school shooting in Uvalde, TX, which left 19 students and two teachers dead at Robb Elementary School, has reawakened debates about gun policy across the nation. Sexe’s plea joins a chorus of cries across the nation for stricter gun-control measures — from mandatory background checks and licensing for gun purchases to so-called red flag laws and bans of military-style assault weapons. 

Those pleas have been met by resistance from powerfully lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and by politicians who consider such measures an infringement on citizens’ constitutional rights. 

This week Wednesday, another mass shooting took place at a medical center in Tulsa, OK, just eight days after the shooting in Uvalde and 18 days after a gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY. 

Addressing Grassley on Tuesday, Sexe listed a number of possible approaches to addressing gun violence, including more spending on mental healthcare and school-protection measures. She emphasized that gun-control measures were not the only policy questions on the table. 

“We can still, you know, discuss in a reasonable way what would be fair,” she said. “I live in Sioux County — I know we love our guns here. And I’m not asking to take anyone’s guns away, at all. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I just think we need to do something.” 

She also talked about her classroom. 

“I love the kids in my class,” she said, turning to address members of the audience. “Some of you have kids that have been in my class this last year, or the year before — I love them. And I love my own kids. And one of them is school age now.” 

She turned to address Grassley with a final comment.

“What can you do to protect me — and them?” she said. “Please.” 

Grassley responded by first addressing the recent Texas tragedy. 

“It’s a sad situation what’s happened in Uvalde,” he said. “It’s a very tragic situation, and I wouldn’t blame you for being emotional about it. When parents send their kids to school to be with a teacher like you, you consider it the safest environment your kids could be in.”

 

Bipartisan efforts

In the wake of the recent tragedy, some U.S. senators have pushed for bipartisan gun reform, and Grassley said he is among those working across the aisle to create legislation that addresses the problem of mass shooting events in the United States. 

Responding to Sexe’s question on Tuesday, Grassley said he is partnering with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut to try to find common ground on gun reform legislation in the wake of the Texas shooting.

“I suppose maybe they’ll have something ready by Monday or Tuesday next week, and I’ll be able to give you more details then,” he said.

On Wednesday, Cornyn posted an update on Twitter.

“Today a group of eight bipartisan Senators met to continue negotiations on a gun violence bill that can get a broad, bipartisan vote in the Senate. This follows a similar meeting yesterday,” Cornyn wrote. “There is growing momentum to get something done and we agreed on a plan to keep working.”

There were a variety of questions raised at Parkview Event Center on Tuesday, which hosted “triple” the crowd in attendance at Grassley’s O’Brien County meeting held earlier that day in Primghar. Topics that came up included the need for transparency in cattle pricing, criminal justice reform, staffing shortages at Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) facilities, cybersecurity and renewable energy. However, the question of gun reform dominated the event. 

Midway through the meeting, 74-year-old Joe Gacke of rural Rock Valley stood up to address the crowd.

“I’m a U.S. veteran, and I have extensive training with the AR-15 assault rifle. And I want to tell everybody in this room, those things are absolutely scary,” Gacke said. “And I think every congressman, whether he’s a Democrat or he’s a Republican, should have to go clean up in these schoolrooms, churches or grocery stores, and then maybe, just maybe, something would get done.”

This comment was met by another round of applause by many in the audience.

“I heard everything you said,” Grassley said in response to Gacke’s comment, “but I don’t know that I can add anything other than what I said to the teacher over here.”

Fifty-seven-year-old Kim Van Es, of Sioux Center, was given the floor to pose a pointed follow-up question:

“Are you willing to support a ban on AR-15s and similar assault weapons?” she asked Grassley. “It seems like the only purpose for them is to wipe out as many people as possible in a short amount of time, and I don’t see why those things need to be legal in this country.”

Grassley responded by saying, “I’m going to wait until we get this negotiation done between Cornyn and Murphy before I decide what I’m going to do, and I don’t want to interfere with any negotiations that might go on, but I believe it deals both with guns and with school safety, and they’re both kind of very much tied together.”

 

Light on details

At the Rock Valley meeting, rather than provide specifics about the nature of the gun-reform legislation under consideration, Grassley spoke about his past work on the Eagles Act, a piece of legislation he sponsored in the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Named for the school mascot, the bill is aimed at school violence prevention through a reauthorization and expansion of the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, or NTAC.  

“I worked with parents after that in 2018 to put the bill together. It builds on something that the secret service has been doing since 1998,” Grassley said, explaining that equipping schools with the tools to identify potential attackers early and intervene is one way to mitigate the problem of gun violence in the nation’s schools. 

“In each of these cases, people were recognized ahead of time for having problems,” Grassley said, “but if they had been referred to mental health people and been in some sort of treatment, the names would’ve been in the FBI database, so that they couldn’t buy a gun.”

The Sioux County stop was Grassley’s 57th county visit so far this year. 

 

Complex issue

Following the meeting, and addressing the emotional pitch of the room, Grassley said to the Daily Sentinel, “There should be a lot of emotion — it’s hard to understand how somebody could be that cold hearted. And then you look back and he’s had problems,” Grassley said, referring to the shooter. “So the extent to which it’s guns — guns kill. But you have to have people pull the trigger. So, what’s wrong with them?” 

Grassley said addressing the issue of mass shootings is complex, both in terms of making laws that address the variety of factors that contribute to gun violence, but also in terms of pushing legislation through in the Senate, where gridlock often prevails. Grassley said passing the 60-vote threshold in the Senate is a tall order, even for relatively noncontroversial bills.

“So you’ve got to deal with all these issues,” Grassley said. “It’s not easy.”



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