Congress

Republicans cast about on guns, Trump’s rhetoric at town halls

August recess is typically a low-profile time for members of Congress, but tensions running high this week

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., withheld on whether he supports expanding background checks at his town hall this week - saying he would have to see the details. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

An agonizing national conversation about gun violence and race reverberated in members of Congress’ town halls across the country this week. 

“I totally disagree with the characterization that Trump is racist,” said Republican Rep. Don Bacon to a smattering of applause from a small audience in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska. “When you call the president a racist ... you're turning away half the population.”

A constituent pushed back.

“As someone with brown skin, how are you going to protect me?” she asked. 

“I do think we need to raise the level of how we communicate with each other. I just think we’ve crossed the line into judging what’s in people’s hearts,” Bacon replied.

“Well then you should talk to the president and ask him not to say these things, then I wouldn’t be afraid for my own safety,” the constituent replied. 

“Thank you ma’am for sharing,” Bacon said. 

While the August recess is typically a low-profile time for members of Congress, two mass shootings over the weekend, including what could be one of the worst hate crimes perpetrated against Latinos in U.S. history, led to heightened tensions back home, where constituents pressed Republican lawmakers on gun violence, white supremacy, and President Donald Trump's rhetoric. 

Polling by Fox News last month indicated 63 percent of voters think Trump’s racist taunt of four congresswomen “crossed the line.” Nearly 100 percent of Americans supported universal background checks in a Quinnipiac poll earlier this year.

Rep. Chris Stewart threatened to abandon a town hall in North Salt Lake, Utah, when emotions ran high, the Salt Lake Tribune reported

When a constituent asked Stewart why he voted against a resolution to formally condemn Trump’s taunt, the Republican replied, “by your question, you’re implying I’m a racist,” provoking disapproving shouts from the audience.  

Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack withheld on whether he supports expanding background checks — saying he would have to see the details. He voted against requiring background checks for firearm transfers between individuals earlier this year.

He deflected on political solutions to gun violence by saying, “I know there are a lot of people that think we’ve got to go after the weapons ... but I believe there is a much larger issue at work here, and I think it’s the heart,” according to the Booneville Democrat

In Minnesota, Rep. Jim Hagedorn said he believes current gun laws are sufficient and opposes lifting a ban on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control studying gun violence as a public health issue, the Daily Globe reported. He wasn’t as definite on white supremacist violence.

“I condemn all supremacy — white supremacy, black supremacy, Islamic supremacy, you go on down the list,” he said. “Of course I condemn it.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington was more forceful. 

“I believe we need to be as vigilant in countering white nationalism as we are in domestic terrorism,” she said. “Whether it's homegrown terrorism or foreign terrorism it won't be tolerated.”

McMorris Rogers said she does not support banning assault weapons, which drew some jeers from the crowd. 

McMorris Rogers said she does support “fixing the [National Instant Criminal Background Check System]” to “catch people who fall through the cracks.” 

Democrats have in recent days renewed calls to pass H.R. 8, a bill that would require NICS background searches for firearm transfers between individuals. McMorris Rogers voted against it

Correction Aug. 9 3:15 p.m. | A previous version of this story mischaracterized Rep. Steve Womack’s position on background checks. He supports them in some circumstances. 

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