Chris Collins should reconsider. He’s a congressman, not an onlooker and gun violence is a deadly serious issue.
Collins, a Republican representing New York’s 27th Congressional District, says he won’t attend a forum on gun violence in the Buffalo area on April 7. The reason, a spokeswoman says, is that the organizers are “radical partisans” who are looking “to score cheap political points.”
To be clear, the organizers are high school students: teenagers who have a hard-earned right to be concerned about gun violence and who are behaving as responsible American citizens – better than some adults. They are not calling to take anyone’s guns away or to abolish the Second Amendment. They are looking for answers to a problem that is provably, lethally real. All congressmen should be interested in that. That’s their job.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, understands the obligation. He plans to attend.
“These mass shootings disproportionately affect young people, so it’s appropriate and I think inspiring that young people are organizing things like this like never before,” he said. He’s right.
It’s not that students or any individual or lobby has the single right answer that will bridge the divisions over gun rights and gun violence. For today, the conversation, alone, is important. Collins might learn something were he to attend. Just as likely, the students might hear something they hadn’t considered. What’s the downside?
For whatever reason, Collins has resisted these kinds of gatherings since he assumed the office five years ago. They are “useless,” he once said, because of “demonstrators who come and shout you down and heckle you.”
There is, no doubt, an element of truth in that observation, but as many other politicians have shown, constituent meetings have larger, compensating values. They may be difficult, but Collins, like every other human being, can grow. That only happens when you have the mettle to venture outside your comfort zone.
Politics isn’t for the fainthearted. Members of Congress have a core obligation to seek out a variety of viewpoints. If they never expose themselves to different ideas, they won’t find a path to the compromises that are essential to American democracy.
Collins represents what may be the most Republican congressional district in New York. But Republican are worried about gun violence, too. Students in his district know they are not immune from the predations of an angry man armed with a high-capacity rifle. They need a congressman who is not afraid to show up.
Collins, of course, is a supporter of gun rights, but that’s exactly why he needs to attend. Some of the students, no doubt, have a similar outlook. His input, and Higgins’ is valuable. As one student said in response to Collins’ refusal, “We’re just trying to look for solutions.”
Collins should be, too, and he should demonstrate it by stepping outside his comfort zone. He’ll be a better congressman for it.