A cardboard cut-out of U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder sat alongside his seven challengers at a student-organized town hall Saturday in Olathe after the incumbent Republican declined the request to appear in person.
Kevin Kinsella, who teaches debate at J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kan., asked the cut-out of the Overland Park congressman if he would continue to accept campaign donations from the National Rifle Association.
“His silence tells me all I need to know,” said Kinsella, who moderated the town hall discussion among Yoder’s challengers at Saint Andrew’s Christian Church in Olathe.
The church was filled to the balcony as the candidates spoke on a range of issues, including education and immigration. But gun violence received particular focus and generated some of the strongest reactions.
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“The only way to protect us from a bad guy with a gun is a congressman with a spine,” said Jay Sidie, Yoder’s 2016 opponent who is making another run for the Democratic nomination.
Democrat Tom Niermann said that during his first year as a teacher 26 years ago, students were killed by gun violence and he had to grapple with a student bringing a gun to school.
He said he was grateful that students were forcing the nation to finally have a serious conversation about gun reform.
The event dubbed “The Town Hall for Our Lives” is a part of a national movement to pressure lawmakers to enact new gun control measures in the wake of the shooting at a high school earlier this year in Parkland, Fla.
The town hall was organized by the same students who organized the march through Kansas City last month.
Yoder, who represents Kansas' 3rd Congressional District, is one of several Republicans to face pressure from the student-led movement. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, also declined this week an invitation to a similar event in St. Louis.
Yoder’s spokesman, C.J. Grover, said the congressman would be willing to meet with the students in the future, but he also raised concerns that Saturday’s town hall would be overly politicized.
“These students absolutely have the right to have their voices heard, but Saturday’s last-minute event will by hijacked by forces that want to politicize this tragedy and use it as a political wedge issue,” Grover said in an email.
“Kevin is more than happy to meet with these students to continue a community discussion about what changes in policies would create a meaningful impact on their safety,” Grover said. “Their voices have significant value in this debate and he looks forward to hearing their perspective.”
Libertarian candidate Chris Clemmons told the crowd he is a staunch supporter of the 2nd amendment and said his decision to appear to a crowd of gun control supporters should be seen as a sign he’s willing to stand up for what he believes.
Quinn Patel, a 15-year-old freshman from Olathe East High School, said student organizers planned to submit all of the questions asked at the town hall to Yoder’s office and post his answers on the “March For Our Lives Kansas City” Facebook page if he answers.
Student organizers also provided a booth where attendees could register to vote.
Niki Joshi, a 16-year-old junior from Blue Valley High School who attended the event, said she was disappointed by Yoder’s absence.
“I think that he has a responsibility to be here. He’s scared that people are calling him out,” she said.
Grover said that Yoder has recently met with teachers and a survivor of the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado on this issue. He touted the recently passed omnibus budget bill that removed the prohibition on gun research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Turning a serious, important issue into a political rally is the wrong approach to solving our nation’s toughest problems. Since the Parkland shooting, Kevin’s been focused on solutions like lifting the ban on gun violence research at the CDC, enhancing the background check system, new funding for armed resource officers and other deterrents, and getting new regulations banning bump stock devices,” Grover said.
Yoder has been consistently endorsed by the National Rifle Association throughout his congressional career and in the past has also supported several pieces of legislation to loosen gun laws, including co-sponsoring a bill in 2013 to make concealed carry permits obtained in any state apply throughout the nation.
Yoder’s challengers repeatedly pointed to his NRA support during the event in Olathe.
“The core root of this problem is money. The only way we’re going to stop this is if we cut off the legs of the NRA,” said Democrat Mike McCamon, generating applause from the crowd.
Larry Guerra, a 59-year-old mechanical engineer from Mission, said he enjoyed the frank discussion from Yoder’s challengers, but he wasn’t surprised by the Republican’s decision to avoid the event.
“It would’ve been like a gang (up) on him,” said Guerra, a registered Democrat.