ST. GEORGE — The first few moments of U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart’s town hall meeting in St. George Tuesday included him bragging about shooting an AK-47 with members of his staff a few hours earlier.
“I showed my staff that I could shoot an AK-47 way better than any of them,” said Stewart, the Republican congressman representing Utah’s 2nd congressional district.
What followed was a somewhat contentious debate with members of the public on issues like gun control, Russian collusion and taxes.
Stewart held the town hall meeting at Desert Hills High School to answer questions from members of the public. Several hundred people attended.
After Stewart asked for a question “from somebody who thinks I’m nuts,” Joseph Platt, who said he’s a gun owner with roots in Southern Utah, asked Stewart what his stance was on assault rifles in the public’s hands — a question that drew both cheers and jeers from the audience.
Stewart said he supports measures that would temporarily take away guns from people with mental health issues and ban items like bump stocks that essentially turn semi-automatic guns into automatic ones.
“The problem is, if we (ban assault rifles), and then there’s another shooting, which there will be, then they say ‘OK, well it didn’t go far enough,’” Stewart said. “And then we have to ban something else.”
Stewart assured the audience that while he’s a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, he will also support ways “to make society safer.” Stewart didn’t mention President Donald Trump’s idea to arm teachers in the classroom as one of the ideas he’d support.
Platt said Stewart didn’t answer his question about why high-powered assault rifles with high-capacity magazines should still be available for people in the public. While the argument is often made that “people kill people and not guns,” Platt said unregulated guns lead to the problem that results in so many deaths to gun violence nationwide.
“Unregulated guns that have no purpose other than killing people by whatever name they’re called — these semi-automatic weapons — shouldn’t be in the hands of the public,” Platt said.
Kellee Hindes, of St. George, said Stewart did a great job addressing the concerns of people in Southern Utah, especially about the assault rifle issue.
“I’m glad he let people ask him the questions they did,” Hindes said. “There’s opposition with all things.”
Earlier in the town hall meeting, Stewart also said he’s fed up with the news media perpetuating the story of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign before the 2016 election.
“We’ve been told for 16 months that there’s evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, and the truth is, is that there is not,” Stewart said. “Maybe we find something that surprises us through (Special Counsel Robert) Mueller’s investigation, but at this point, we haven’t seen any evidence of that.”
Speaking of public lands, Stewart mentioned his plan to make Utah’s sixth national park within the existing boundaries of the recently downsized Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The national park would be called Escalante Canyons National Park and would boost the local economy in rural Southern Utah, Stewart said.
As Stewart wrapped up the town hall meeting, he encouraged all those with other questions to contact him directly by emailing him.
“I appreciate standing before you and some of you agreeing or disagreeing with me,” Stewart said. “That is the way it works in America.”
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