Betsy Johnson does not shy away from answering the tough questions. The state senator from District 16 answered questions from the Jewell School journalism class with a candor that surprised them and at times made them laugh or stare open mouthed.

Johnson regularly talks to the Jewell journalism class, either at Jewell School, in her office in Scappoose, or at the state capitol building. This year it worked out best for Johnson to come to Jewell school Friday where she met with the students in the English classroom.

Ten students had prepared a list of 25 questions, questions that ranged from how teenagers can get more involved in government, to whether the state government should get more involved in high school football safety. While there was not enough time to get to every question, each student got to ask at least one. As expected, the most controversial question, and Johnson’s longest answer revolved around guns.

“Sen. Johnson, what is your opinion on the gun control issue?” asked Thomas Meehan, a junior high student at Jewell.

“Oh Thomas, you’ve asked the question of this legislative session. Let me answer it in a kind of odd way. I am the only member of my caucus that belongs to the NRA. I’m a Class 3 holder which means that I can legally possess a machine gun and actually have one. So I take the Second Amendment pretty seriously,” said Johnson, who left several students with their mouths wide open.

“Does that surprise you?” she asked the class. “That is an honest answer to your question. Now what you have is so complicated because that question of guns and the Second Amendment and the ability of responsible citizens to possess certain styles of guns will absolutely rage through our Legislature.

“And I’m worried that if we start the very controversial debate about guns early in the Legislature that we may get ourselves so tangled up that we won’t take on some of the bigger questions that we ought to be asking.

“We have half a billion guns in this country,” said Johnson. “To somehow take a situation like Newtown where a very troubled adolescent young man, stole guns – stole guns – that were legally purchased and went in and slaughtered those children is a horrific situation. But the policy question is: ‘Do we ban guns because a deranged young man stole guns and did a very horrifying thing?’ That is going to be where the debate is.

Meehan said that his mom likes to hunt and has a rifle.

“Some of my colleagues would have the government come into her house and take away her guns,” said Johnson. “They hate guns that much. The rest of us – many of the rest of us – respect the right, I believe offered in the Constitution, for law-abiding citizens to possess weapons. And so that is where the debate is going to be. I’m going to come down on the side of protecting your mother’s Second Amendment rights. But it is going to be a nasty, personal, contentious issue,” Johnson said.

“It is going to be hyperbolic … way off the charts … everybody yelling at everybody. People are going to say that I think it is OK to kill kids because I think it is OK to possess guns. That’s hyperbole. That’s hyperbolic. It takes a little bit of the facts and supercharges them,” she added.

On a lighter note, young journalist Emma MacNicoll ask Johnson about the creation of new laws. “What should I do if I believe there should be a new law?” she said.

“You can approach it in a whole bunch of ways,” said Johnson. “Do you want a new law, or do you want to remedy a problem? Because in some cases you can get a fix to something without passing a law. You can do it as an administrative rule. But let’s assume you want to pass a new law. There are lots of ways you can do it. You can go out and gather signatures and get your idea on the ballot. Very expensive. Very time consuming. A big hassle.

“You can go to your legislator and say, ‘Sen. Johnson, I think that XYZ ought to be the policy for the state of Oregon. Will you draft me a bill that reflects that and help me get the bill passed?’ And as part of my responsibility as a member of the Legislature I write bills on behalf of my constituents all the time.

“Now I may sometimes help get your bill introduced, but in good conscience can’t vote for it. Other times I’ll say I’m more than happy to help you; we’ll get the bill written; I’ll testify with you. We’ll work it though the process. That’s generally the most common way bills become laws.”

Last year the Jewell journalism class traveled to the state capitol to see the senate in action. The year before several students not only interviewed Johnson and Rep. Deborah Boone, but they acted as honorary pages, delivering messages to the legislators.

Besides travelling out to Jewell to talk with students, Johnson has helped the district in other ways in the past, including working with the Oregon Department of Transportation to make major repairs to Oregon Highway 103 that goes by Jewell School.

Johnson has called herself a fiscally conservative Democrat in the past, and she has also lauded her family’s participation in the military. Her late mother was an officer in the Navy.

Don Anderson teaches at Jewell School and writes and takes photos for The Daily Astorian

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