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Town Hall for Our Lives sees fall-off in attendance in Colorado Springs

Author: Abigail Censky, The Gazette - April 8, 2018 - Updated: April 8, 2018

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People carry signs and show their support of the ‘March For Our Lives’ event on March 24, which started at Acacia Park and proceeded throughout downtown Colorado Springs. The event gained international attention following the mass school shooting that left 17 dead earlier this year in Parkland, Florida. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

COLORADO SPRINGS — There was no empty chair on the stage at Saturday’s “empty chair” Town Hall for Our Lives.

Instead, lifesize cardboard cutouts of Rep. Doug Lamborn and Sen. Cory Gardner were propped behind the eight panelists. Colorado State House Rep. Larry Liston, Republican, was the only elected official there; the other seven panelists were there to campaign.

The event was billed as “empty chair” by Town Hall Project, the organization that coordinated more than 123 town halls across the country. While the event was formally organized by Andrew Smith, a candidate for Colorado House District 16, the impetus came from the organization, which serves as a DIY kit for grass-roots organizing of town halls.

Town Hall Project became popular after organizing events nationwide during the push for a repeal of Affordable Care Act, when many lawmakers chose not to hold town halls when they returned to their districts for recess.

This time was different: The call came from David Hogg, student activist from Parkland, Fla. Hogg tweeted a call to action March 25 with specific instructions to contact Town Hall Project.

The tweet came just two days after the student organized March For Our Lives that harnessed the power of social media and the #NeverAgain movement to coordinate more than 800 marches for gun reform across the globe.

Town Hall for Our Lives was supposed to be the second act.

Two thousand people showed up to the March 24 Colorado Springs March for Our Lives, but Town Hall for Our Lives didn’t see the same results. Around 45 people gathered in the East Library, most of them affiliated with political campaigns represented by candidate panelists.

Chandra Wilkins, campaign manager for Andrew Smith, lamented that there wasn’t a higher youth turnout and said she thought it might be “partially because we didn’t have the time to get it ‘out'” and advertise the event on a large scale.

Cristi Harris, 54, a Fountain resident, noticed the lack of youth and said she noticed it two weeks ago, as well. “My very first event that I ever went to was the March for Our Lives, and I’m looking around going, ‘Where’s the kids?'”

Eight people at the town hall appeared to be under age 20, and at least four were children of candidate panelists. However, the event was kicked off by Amelia Chavez, student at North Middle School.

Chavez opened her prepared remarks by saying she knew something had to change after she heard the shelter-in-place alarm at her school a few weeks ago. While she knew there wasn’t actually an active shooter since it was a scheduled drill, Chavez said she was abhorred that 1,077 people in the U.S. had been killed in events classified as mass shootings since 1996.

“We are not going to play by the rules, and we’re not going to make it 1,078 (people),” she exclaimed to the audience. After Chavez spoke, panelists had time to give their platforms ranging from Stephany Rose-Spaulding’s calls for an “across the board” federal standard for gun licenses to calls for “hardening of our schools” by Liston.

Afterward, there was only time for five questions, two of which drew audible gasps. One was Harris’ question, posed as a “yes” or “no” to all the panelists, inquiring whether any of them intended to take away people’s guns, to which each panelist answered no.

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The other cause for outburst came after an audience member asked Liston how he would promote “common-sense gun laws” as the recipient of an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

Liston’s answer conjured more audible disbelief when he alleged, “This may not be what you want to hear, but the NRA is not the problem.”

Marc Snyder, former mayor of Manitou Springs and current candidate for Colorado House District 18, received applause and whoops from the crowd when he interjected, “There are 5 million kids that are so tired of hearing that … that answer is not playing anymore.”

Other panelists also took issue when Liston said that an increased exposure to violence in videogames, TV and movies was behind a society more susceptible to mass shootings and increased violence.

“It is very much a young-white-male problem that we are not talking about in that language,” rebutted Rose-Spaulding, a Democratic candidate attempting to unseat Lamborn. “I play videogames .(but) girls aren’t going around shooting up places … we all watch the same stuff.”

Abigail Censky, The Gazette