by Dave Waddell
There were two Republicans on the El Rey Theater stage for Saturday’s Chico forum on school gun violence — and only one was made of cardboard.
At center-stage throughout the program was a life-size cutout of a microphone-holding Rep. Doug LaMalfa, so real-looking that many in the audience at first thought the Richvale Republican was in attendance. Students organizing the event say LaMalfa was invited.
The one breathing Republican on stage for the Town Hall for Our Lives was congressional candidate Gregory Cheadle. He gained national notoriety when, in June 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump pointed him out at a campaign rally crowd in Redding and said: “Oh, look at my African-American over here. Look at him. Are you the greatest?”
Cheadle, who said he was at the forum to learn and acted like it, was the panelist most resistant to more government restrictions as a solution to gun violence. Cheadle said he “would be lying through my teeth in this degenerate age” if he said he had a solution for mass shootings.
He noted that, as a former resident of East Oakland and Cleveland, he owned a gun and appreciated the need for self-protection.
But Cheadle also recalls that he “almost defecated my pants it was so powerful” the first time he shot a 30-06 rifle, recognizing the need for gun training and certain restrictions.
Cheadle said mass killers tend to be “young people hooked on some sick form of getting attention. We’re a violence-driven society. The Constitution isn’t the problem. The problem is with us as people.”
In addition to Cheadle, responding to student and audience questions were two LaMalfa opponents in the 1st Congressional District – Democratic hopeful Jessica Holcombe of Auburn and Green Party candidate Lewis Ebinger of Mount Shasta. Also part of the forum were Sonia Aery of Chico, a Democratic candidate in the 3rd state Assembly District, and Ali Meders-Knight, a Mechoopda tribal member.
The event was put on by NeverAgain Chico. Students on stage asking questions included Kailyn Erb, 19, a Chico State theater arts major; Makayla Sharkey, 17, a Chico High School junior; Evan Kerr, 16, an Inspire School of the Arts and Sciences junior; Lucinda Law, 15, a Chico High sophomore; and Jordan Michelena, 14, a Chico Junior High School eighth-grader.
During a break in Saturday’s forum, Michelena said she was a leader of the #Enough National School Walkout at Chico Junior on March 14. Demonstrating students at Chico Junior – which Michelena said numbered two-thirds of the student body – assembled at the school gym, where she spoke.
“I was telling the students the facts of what’s going on because in a couple of elections we’ll be able to vote,” said Michelena, who will attend Inspire High. “Soon enough the kids will be voting and making a change.”
Holcomb said that, if elected to Congress, her first piece of legislation would be for licensing and training requirements to buy guns.
“You have to get a license if you’re going fishing,” Holcomb said. “You can go in and buy a semi-automatic weapon (at a gun show) without ever even identifying yourself.”
While mass shootings deaths are widely publicized, “you don’t hear about the many children who are killed by accident by guns,” Holcomb added.
Ebinger said many citizens not at the forum “are driven by some sort of fear” that needs to be confronted and discussed.
“The racism is coming out, and I think this is a good thing,” Ebinger said. “We can live in the world in a beautiful way without the problem of guns and gun violence.”
Aery argued for a therapist rather than an armed guard in every school. She cited statistics that showed a decline in mass shootings in the U.S. during a period when assault-type rifles were banned.
“Don’t allow civilians to have weapons of mass murder,” Aery said. “There’s nothing in any constitution that allows that.”
One notion that student questioners seemed to find distasteful was that students begin wearing see-through backpacks to school as a safety measure. Meders-Knight wondered whether the promotion of such backpacks would be the National Rifle Association’s next big thing.
Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson attended a portion of the forum, fielding a couple of questions from the students and reading a prepared statement. In response to Erb’s question about the lack of any active-shooter drills at the university, Hutchinson said one such drill was planned in a couple of weeks. In the past, such drills for emergency personnel have taken place during the summer, but Hutchinson said the university wants to “do a better job of training while our students are here.”
She said the “open-campus” nature of a university makes “a lockdown a little trickier” than for a closed-campus high school.
During the event’s open-mic segment, Scott Huber, a candidate in the fall for a seat on the Chico City Council, advised the students that they had two courses of action for changing gun laws locally: Approaching the council either (1) before or (2) after the November election.
With a 4-3 conservative majority now in control of city policy, Huber said any gun reform was a “long shot” until a more liberal council is seated. Huber advocated for gun laws designed for Chico.
The NeverAgain Chico students said Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien was unable to attend the forum but promised to meet with them soon.
Dave Waddell is news director of ChicoSol.