Editor's note: This article was published in the Henrico Citizen Sept. 21.
U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan (D-VA) held her first in-person town hall meeting at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College on Sept. 6, an event attended by over 70 people that opened with a dramatic plea for gun control laws. One constituent fell into tears at the microphone as she expressed fear and exasperation over gun-related violence.
"What's been going through my mind lately is just the gun violence and mass shootings, and I'm tired of people saying it's a mental health problem," said the college student, who introduced herself as “K.”
McClellan said several federal bills designed to limit access to guns exist but are stuck in committees.
“We have what's called a discharge petition,” McClellan said, referring to a procedure that forces bills out of committee and onto the floor for a vote. She has signed one, but the petition needs at least 218 signatures from the House’s 435 members to succeed, she said.
“There is bipartisan support,” McClellan, who is on the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said.
One of these bills is an assault weapons ban, similar to the legal restrictions that were in place from 1994 to 2004. Another bill McClellan co-sponsored is the Office of Firearm Violence Prevention Act, which would require the Department of Justice to promote gun violence prevention strategies.
"So, we do have bills in place," McClellan said. "We cannot get them out of committee. That doesn't mean we're not going to continue to fight."
McClellan was pressed to answer many difficult questions, including where the federal government can intercede in Virginia’s tilt away from reproductive rights and the rights of transgender women in sports. Paula Pando, President of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, opened the meeting and introduced McClellan.
McClellan also wants to pass bills that investigate the root causes of gun violence in communities and invest in programs to handle those causes, she said. Since being sworn in on March 7, McClellan and other Democrats in Congress co-sponsored a bill that declares gun violence as a public health crisis.
"It is too easy for someone to get a gun that will kill a whole lot of people very quickly," McClellan said. "And there are things that we can do to stop that."
One woman at the meeting, who did not give her name, turned the subject toward transgender rights. She said she supported initiatives of diversity and inclusion but felt that women’s rights were being compromised when transgender women were allowed to compete in women's sports.
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“It just doesn’t seem fair to allow male bodied persons at the junior high level to compete against women and be allowed to use their locker rooms,” she said. “Puberty has given them an unfair advantage.”
McClellan said bills introduced about trans youth participating in sports failed to solve the biological unfairness between athletes, and that fairness could be achieved without the government telling people what gender they are.
“When I pass laws, I'm trying to solve a problem. If the problem is you have a 6-foot, 200-pound individual playing against a 5-foot, 100-pound individual, we can fix that without having to say to someone, 'I'm going to tell you who you are,'” McClellan said. “That's not the conversation that we're having in Congress … because for some people, they are not trying to solve a problem, they're trying to pit us against each other.”
McClellan was also asked if she felt resources spent on space research and exploration could be better spent solving issues on Earth. McClellan said she toured NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton Virginia and found that people working there were using space exploration as a way to detect pollution on Earth.
“They were about to launch a satellite that can measure [air pollution] to the neighborhood level,” McClellan said enthusiastically. “So that when you check your weather app. . . it will give you a much more granular accurate prediction of what the air quality is going to be today.”
A 45-year-old constituent asked McClellan what environmental initiatives she would implement, if she had the ability to.
McClellan, a cosponsor for the A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act, said there was an increase of power plants and pipelines going through minority and low-income communities, "where people didn't have the power to speak out," she said.
The communities with power plants are bearing disproportionate climate change impacts than more affluent areas. The proposed legislation would require consideration of what else is on these sites, like native burial grounds or vulnerable communities, McClellan said.
McClellan would also like to continue federal investment in the transition to clean energy and clean transportation, and wants to help farmers transition some of their techniques in ways that are less damaging to the environment, she said.
A man named Angel, who was given a life sentence as a minor, said he was in prison for 27 years and voted for McClellan at his first election after being released.
“I just want to say thank you, and that the work continues. I voted for you. To me it was amazing the first time in my life being able to vote,” he said.
On Feb. 17, McClellan won a special election to succeed the late U.S Rep. Donald McEachin, becoming the first Black woman from Virginia elected to Congress. Prior to her election, she served in the General Assembly for 18 years and passed over 370 pieces of legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of Virginia.
McClellan plans to hold more in-person town hall meetings during her time in office to listen to more concerns from her district.
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