POLITICS
04/06/2018 01:44 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2018

GOP Lawmakers To Skip Student-Led 'Town Hall For Our Lives' Events Across The Country

"We are just students who want to be safe in our schools," said a 17-year-old organizer of one of the forums.

A flurry of town halls to address the country’s gun violence epidemic are planned nationwide for Saturday, marking the next major action organized by March For Our Lives.

The forums with elected officials and their constituents are the result of a call to action issued March 25 by David Hogg, a 17-year-old survivor of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and outspoken member of the #NeverAgain movement to end gun violence.

March For Our Lives partnered with Town Hall Project, a volunteer-based initiative that identifies and promotes congressional forums, to help students organize each event, known as a “Town Hall For Our Lives.”

By Friday afternoon, there were more than 120 Town Hall For Our Lives events listed on Town Hall Project’s website, with over 30 Democratic members of Congress having organized or accepted invitations to the forums. 

But their Republican counterparts failed to accept a single invitation to a Town Hall For Our Lives, causing the bulk of the events to be planned as “empty chair” town halls, in which the invited lawmakers aren’t expected to show up.

To be sure, the organizing process behind Town Hall For Our Lives appeared less seamless than that of March For Our Lives, the massive student-led protest against gun violence held nearly two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., and other cities worldwide.

People holding signs filled blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue during March For Our Lives on March 24.
SOPA Images via Getty Images
People holding signs filled blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue during March For Our Lives on March 24.

Over a dozen events were added to Town Hall Project’s website just days before April 7, which could make it difficult for some lawmakers to rearrange their schedules given such short notice. In one case, a retired congressman was listed as having been invited, though it was unclear why.

HuffPost reached out to all of the roughly 90 Republican members of Congress who were invited to a Town Hall For Our Lives, as listed on Town Hall Project’s website. Ten responded.

Representatives for six of the Republican lawmakers who responded to HuffPost’s request for comment ― Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Bob Goodlatte (Va.) and Jim Renacci (Ohio) ― cited scheduling conflicts as their reasons for being unable to participate. All but one of those spokespeople did not respond when asked if the lawmakers planned to host a town hall on gun violence at a later date.

“We don’t have any town halls on the calendar but certainly [are] open to hosting a productive forum to talk about it,” a spokeswoman for Renacci told HuffPost in an email.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) told HuffPost that “no invite was extended,” but that he would be unable to attend either way because of a scheduling conflict. Two students organizing separate town halls in Texas disputed her statement.

The necessity for dialogue between constituency and representative transcends ideology and party identity. Chris Pino, senior at Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas

Chris Pino, an 18-year-old senior at Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas, told HuffPost that the spokeswoman’s statement that Olson was never invited to a Town Hall For Our Lives was “simply not true.”

“I have reached out to him and his office on at least four occasions throughout the past week, both by phone and email,” Pino told HuffPost in an email on Thursday. “Each of those times, I received no definitive response. Today, I finally received a definitive response, which was a no.”

“The necessity for dialogue between constituency and representative transcends ideology and party identity,” Pino wrote. “Although elected officials and many of their constituents will disagree on some grounds, dissent in opinion is not a mark of division; rather, it is a building block for unity and for bridging the partisan divide. Simply stated, we must work together in order to succeed as a nation.”

A spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said his office never received an invitation to a Town Hall For Our Lives, despite the listing on Town Hall Project’s website. HuffPost was unable to connect with an organizer to verify that an invitation was sent. Womack’s spokeswoman did not respond when asked if he planned to attend or host a town hall on gun violence at a later date.

One Republican congressman was decidedly against participating in the Town Hall for Our Lives events for a different reason. Tyler Sandberg, a spokesman for Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), said the lawmaker had hosted a town hall with students Thursday, but would not attend the Town Hall For Our Lives he was invited to on Saturday because of its connection to ProgressNow Colorado, a progressive political advocacy organization.

“By all means, young folks should speak their minds,” Sandberg told HuffPost in an email. “But this rally is being organized by ProgressNow — a hate-inspired partisan group looking to raise money and win elections, not solve problems. Mike has no interest associating with the smear merchants at ProgressNow. He is seeking solutions, not stunts.”

Coffman’s position was “very disheartening” to Ian Gaskins, a 17-year-old junior at Mountain Range High School in Westminster, Colorado, and an organizer of the Town Hall For Our Lives that had invited Coffman.

A spokesman for Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (above) said the Republican lawmaker had "no interest" in attending the town hall.
Karl Gehring via Getty Images
A spokesman for Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (above) said the Republican lawmaker had "no interest" in attending the town hall.

Gaskins acknowledged that ProgressNow helped Never Again Colorado, a student-led anti-gun-violence group, organize the town hall. But he said he had no idea why Sandberg would call the organization “hate-inspired.”

“We are working with other groups just because we haven’t done this before,” Gaskins told HuffPost. “Just because we’re getting help, doesn’t mean it’s not our event. ... We are just students who want to be safe in our schools.”

A spokesman for Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) told HuffPost that he is “unable to attend” a Town Hall For Our Lives, but noted he led a roundtable Thursday about school safety with school officials and members of local law enforcement.

Not every Democratic lawmaker responded to the Town Hall For Our Lives invitations either. Roughly 20 of them who had been invited had not yet confirmed their attendance as of Friday afternoon, according to Town Hall Project’s website. A much smaller number of Democratic members of Congress were invited to these town halls, likely because they are traditionally already in favor of gun reform legislation. However, a handful of them hosted related forums earlier in the week.

Florida Rep. Ted Deutch (D) was one of the dozens of Democratic lawmakers to heed Hogg’s call to action. Deutch hosted a Town Hall For Our Lives on Tuesday. It drew over 1,000 people to the Coral Springs Center for the Arts ― just 3 miles down the road from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. 

Many students, parents and community members encouraged the 17 elected officials present at Deutch’s town hall, including mayors and state legislators, to pursue stricter gun laws in the wake of the Feb. 14 Parkland massacre. A handful of gun rights advocates showed up to the event as well.

“Their argument is that guns don’t kill people, that bad people kill people,” Coral Springs Commissioner Dan Daley said after a pro-gun attendee heckled him from the crowd. “Why would you want to make it easy for a bad person to get a gun?”

Jimmy Dahman, executive director of Town Hall Project and a former organizer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, called the students’ efforts “incredibly inspiring.”

“These students have shown great determination in wanting to engage in the democratic process,” Dahman told HuffPost. “It’s elected officials’ responsibility to listen to their constituents.”

“Democracy is best served when the people show up,” he added.

Visit Town Hall Project’s website for an hour-by-hour updated list of Town Hall For Our Lives events.

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