Harris defends gun rights, immigration policy during raucous Harford town hall

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris held firm to two principles during a town hall in Joppa Thursday evening, despite vocal opposition from many in the crowd — there must be greater control over immigration, and law-abiding citizens have the right under the Second Amendment to own firearms.

“It’s not the ‘Bill of Needs,’ it’s the Bill of Rights,” Harris said in response to one woman’s question about why a person would need a semi-automatic rifle such as an AR-15. “A law-abiding citizen has the right to keep and bear arms, not just the government.”

About 130 people had signed in for the March 1 event held on the second floor of the Joppa-Magnolia fire hall according to Jacque Clark, Harris’ spokesperson. It took place around the same time as Harford County leaders hosted a town hall meeting at The John Carroll School in Bel Air on school safety, following last month’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Fourteen students and three staff members were shot and killed Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz has been charged in the killings.

Harris said he would support local initiatives to allow teachers, such as military veterans or others qualified to use firearms, to carry guns in schools to prevent another mass shooting.

“I have no problem letting them carry a firearm in a school building because honestly, the way you stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.

Harris, a Republican, is running for a fifth term representing Maryland’s First District in Congress. The district covers the Eastern Shore, along with large sections of Harford and Baltimore counties and part of Carroll County.

He faces opposition in the June primary election, with two Republican challengers as well as six Democrats and one Libertarian vying for the chance to replace him, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections website. The year-long statewide candidate filing period ended Feb. 27.

Most audience questions were related to gun control and immigration. One man was escorted out after making several derogatory statements while others were speaking about Native Americans and Muslim immigrants.

“Please let him speak, oh my God,” Harris said in defense of Noah Crockett, a Forest Hill resident and enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe, as the man tried to shout him down. Crockett, who was discussing his ancestors’ experience with uninvited immigrants, said later that he is part Nanticoke, people who are indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay region.

Harris spoke in favor of a “merit-based” immigration system, allowing people to come to the U.S. who could fill jobs in fields such as medicine, where there are anticipated shortages of doctors and nurses, or temporary workers for industries such as agriculture and seafood processing.

President Donald Trump, whom Harris said he “fully” supports, has created firestorms of controversy in his first year in office with efforts to ban immigration from select majority-Muslim countries and end the DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, program of 2012 that allows people who immigrated to the U.S. as children or young teens, but do not have lawful status, to request authorities defer taking action on removing them from the U.S.

Both of those initiatives, however, have been tied up in federal courts.

Harris said he supports legislative efforts in Congress to improve U.S. border and internal security and end so-called “chain migration” and the “diversity lottery” that opponents say allows uncontrolled immigration.

He said he also supports visa programs that allow foreign workers as well as initiatives that allow immigrants who are working, getting an education and following the law, to stay in the U.S.

“If we just do DACA we send a signal to the world that our borders are open, just come here under age 18, you get to the front of the line of citizenship,” he said.

Harris also fielded questions on issues such as climate change, Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election and U.S. policy in the Middle East related to the ongoing war in Yemen.

Stopping gun violence

“The real problem with gun violence in this country is not AR-15s,” said Harris, who claimed none of the 343 homicides that happened in Baltimore City in 2017 involved an AR-15 rifle.

Harris called for longer sentences for people convicted of violent crimes so they do not have an opportunity to be on the street and commit a homicide, rather than banning guns.

There have been calls around the nation to ban or restrict sales of military-style long guns, as the suspected gunman in the Parkland, Fla. school shootings, allegedly used an AR-15.

Harris said laws should be changed to allow more information sharing about people with mental health issues, who could also be at risk for committing violence, as well as getting guns out of their hands.

He said the national background check system only flags gun purchasers who have been committed, involuntarily, to an inpatient treatment facility, or have been found by a judge to be “mentally defective.”

“I would support the idea of a properly written red flag law, which allows due process, but gets past the national background check statute,” Harris said.

The congressman drew on his heritage as a child of immigrants, who came to the U.S. from Communist-controlled Eastern Europe, where he said citizens could not own guns.

Harris brought that heritage up when challenged on guns by Alison Kinney, a home-schooled high school junior, who lives in Port Deposit.

“You are lucky to be in America,” he told Kinney before the rest of his statement was drowned out by cheers and chants of “U.S.A, U.S.A!”

Lindsey Darling, a Rising Sun resident and senior at the private Tome School in North East, challenged Harris on assault weapons.

“If that person [Cruz] had a knife, don’t you think that would have killed a lot less people in Florida rather than if he had an assault rifle?” she asked.

Harris challenged her on the definition of assault rifle, a definition she could not immediately provide.

“Don’t you think a teenager should know in this discussion what an assault rifle is?” he asked audience members, who came to Darling’s defense.

“You want to restrict someone’s right to obtain a firearm and you don’t even know what you’re going to restrict. I’m going to beg to differ with you,” he said.

Harris stuck by the Second Amendment and other freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, saying Americans believe “the Creator grants inalienable rights.”

“The Second Amendment is a right granted in the Constitution, guaranteed in the Constitution,” Harris said. “If you want to change it, convince enough legislators to change it, convince enough states to change it and it can be changed. Until then, ladies and gentlemen, it’s part of this country.”

Linda Stine Flint, president of Harford County Republican Women and a candidate for the Republican Central Committee of Harford County, said she thought it was great Harris could hold the town hall. The event lasted about two hours, including time that Harris stuck around to talk with people after the question-and-answer period.

“It's OK to disagree, but you just need to be respectful,” Flint, a Bel Air resident, said after the meeting. “That's why we have the two parties, and you just need to respect each other's philosophies and beliefs.”

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