Student protesters face off at Obama town hall on gun control

(Photo credit: Amy Rose/Fourth Estate)

Last Thursday, President Obama and a handful of selected invitees sat down in Dewberry Hall for a televised forum moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper to discuss Obama’s recent executive action on gun controlJust outside the town hall, students and community members waged a protest over the same issues being discussed inside. 

Around 7 p.m., around 25 protesters who stood against Obama’s executive actions gathered in front of EagleBank Arena. After everyone had arrived, the group with signs in hand started its march to the Johnson Center where members converged with about 25 additional protesters. Across from the group, separated only by a few strands of caution tape, stood 50 other protesters in favor of Obama’s actions.

For the first few tense minutes, loud chanting and insults were hurled across the gap between the opposing groups. Eventually, the yelling died down, and the two sides spent the rest of the protest divided, conversing among themselves and and staring down the opposition.

On Tuesday, January 5, Obama announced a series of executive actions aiming to reduce gun violence. He added that he would attend a town hall at Mason to discuss his actions in further depth. After finding out the location of the event, students like senior Devon Flynn, a government and international politics major, and Mason alum Storm Paglia decided to create a Facebook page in hopes of getting a group together to protest the town hall. 

“The purpose of this protest is to support the Second Amendment and oppose President Obama’s anti-gun agenda,” read the Facebook page Flynn created, Protest Obama Gun Control “Town Hall.”

An email from Mason Interim Police Chief Thomas Longo warned the university community that guns might be present at the protest, but none were visible among the protesters.

Flynn said the proper way for Obama to address the issue of gun violence would have been to go through Congress. Flynn said he does not believe it is right that Obama used executive action with disregard to all other options. 

“In the executive orders [Obama] was talking about mental health, that’s one of the measures I do support. Everything else I think is infringing on people’s rights,” Flynn said. 

Sophomore criminology major William Hicks said he joined the protest because he does not believe the executive actions put in place by Obama will be effective in the long run. He said crazy people will always find a way to obtain guns, despite background checks. 

Eddie Weingart, D.C. resident and founder of the Project to End Gun Violence, stood with the group that supported Obama’s actions. According to their Tumblr account, Project to End Gun Violence is a coalition of proactive D.C.-area citizens who are focused on addressing gun violence in the U.S. at the local, state and national levels.

“I came out [tonight] because I am a gun violence survivor, and I want to thank President Obama for his executive order that he’s signing this week. I think it’s a very important step in the fight to reduce the gun violence epidemic,” Weingart said.

Andy Goddard, whose son was injured at the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, was also on Obama’s side.

“My son is on the inside there [Dewberry Hall]. My son is a survivor from Virginia Tech. He was shot four times at the Virginia Tech [shooting] and I have been working on this issue since that time because we need to do something different,” Goddard said. 

He added that even though the president’s executive actions do not amount to much, they are better than what Congress has been able to accomplish to address gun violence. 

The anti-gun control protesters also came to the event with another issue in mind. The group was unhappy when members realized the town hall was not open to the public and that the audience members were hand-selected by CNN.

In an email sent to the Mason community on January 5, Renell Wynn, vice president of Communications and Marketing at Mason, announced that CNN would be holding an invitation-only town hall and no tickets would be available.

Michael Sandler, director of Strategic Communications at Mason, said closing the town hall to the public was not the university’s decision.

The CNN event with President Barack Obama was planned and run by CNN. Mason’s involvement was to provide the venue via a contract and support based on the terms of that contract,” Sandler said.

Students, like Flynn and others, took issue with the town hall being closed to the public.

Freshman Amanda Funk, a nursing major, said closing the town hall to the public was cowardly and that to call it a town hall was actually a lie.

Freshman Grant Pitarys, a math and economics major, agreed with Funk. 

“This felt like another instance of GMU selling out just like it did with EagleBank, it essentially just pimped out the J.C. [Johnson Center] Gold Room for CNN without letting [in] any student association that might be relevant to attend,” Pitarys said. “I don’t know of any student who was invited, and it just felt disappointing. Even worse was that CNN called this a town hall, but it wasn’t a town hall for us students because of how private it was.”

This disappointment and concern over Obama’s use of executive action led Flynn and his fellow protesters to shout their concerns outside the Johnson Center. The president himself may not have heard them, but their voices were loud and clear nonetheless.