U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley held a town forum at Vesterheim Museum’s Amdahl-Odland building Monday morning. (Decorah Newspapers photo by Sarah Strandberg)
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley held a town forum at Vesterheim Museum’s Amdahl-Odland building Monday morning. (Decorah Newspapers photo by Sarah Strandberg)
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley isn't wavering on gun rights for Americans.

It was one of the hot topics during a standing-room-only town forum the New Hartford Republican held at Vesterheim Museum's Amdal-Odland building Monday morning.

"Where do you come off in terms of being supportive of people versus guns?" Bev Crumb Gesme of Decorah asked.

"It's simple. The Second Amendment is just as important as the First Amendment. I don't want to do anything to compromise the Bill of Rights. I'm not going to compromise the Second Amendment, just as I don't want to compromise the First," said Grassley, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1981.

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion, speech and press and the right to peaceably assemble, while the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear arms.

Craig Mosher of Decorah said the majority of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons and large ammunition clips, in addition to background checks before a citizen can buy a gun.

"I think the right to life should be balanced against the right to bear arms," Mosher said, which brought applause from the crowd.

Mosher asked Grassley whether money from the gun industry lobby is keeping the Senate from passing "reasonable limits on people shooting children," and Grassley responded it was respect for the Second Amendment, which received applause from another segment of the crowd.

"Isn't there some balance between safety and the right to bear arms?" Mosher asked.

Grassley questioned whether the right to life should be extended to abortion, rather than just the right to life outside the womb.

"You get into a situation ... the Constitution is the law of the land. Any compromise is very difficult," he said.

Tom Bushman of Ossian said only criminals have illegal substances in the U.S., which would be the same case with guns if they were outlawed.

Since some mass shootings have been committed by people with mental illness, Grassley said the question is what can be done to "make sure people with mental issues don't get guns."

Jan Heikes, Winneshiek and Allamakee counties' coordinator for mental health services, said the real issue is access to care.

Larry Sells of Decorah said it's easier to get access to guns than mental health services.

Grassley said there is a "very basic problem ... we're not educating enough people in psychiatry. There's a shortage of people to deal with this. I've supported mental health parity (equal access) for a long time," Grassley said.



Farm policy

Emily Neal of Decorah complained current farm policy encourages processed food. She said a new Farm Bill should help develop small, local farms and increase the production of fruits and vegetables. Existing subsidies encourage "food to grow cows and feed people sugar."

Grassley said last year the Senate approved a Farm Bill that ended direct payments that will be considered again this year.

"If you deal with direct payments, there is no subsidy," he said.

Next month, a Farm Bill could be passed with no subsidies, Grassley said. Neal responded even with a new Farm Bill it's nearly impossible for beginning farms to get started if they don't inherit land.

Decorah farmer Carlton Kjos said the Farm Bill should include a safety net for food production and encouraged Grassley to keep crop insurance privatized. He also said voluntary programs, such as the nutrient-reduction program for the Mississippi River proposed by Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey, works better than government-mandated ones.



Minimum wage

Jono Ruf of Decorah said the minimum wage hasn't been adjusted for inflation and that it's not possible for a family to survive on it. He said large corporations such as Walmart pass the burden of their low wages onto taxpayers when their employees qualify for food stamps.

Grassley said during his career he's voted both for and against increases in minimum wage.

He said he would be inclined to vote against an increase now because it would stand in the way of people who don't have jobs, particularly teenagers.

"I want to give everyone an opportunity to get their first job - it's the best vocational education you can have to get people in the workforce and out of poverty," said Grassley, explaining minimum wage jobs can lead to higher pay.

"You never get out of poverty on welfare."



Israel

Grassley was asked whether he would "promise" to vote against a resolution calling for the U.S. to back Israel militarily if it's attacked by Iran since it would cost lives and could trigger a civil war in Lebanon.

"I can't vote no. The purpose of the resolution isn't to promote war; it's to discourage anyone from attacking Israel if they think they can get away with it. It's a resolution backing peace more than a resolution backing war," Grassley said.

"The president made it very clear when he was there (Israel) last week that we have a fundamental relationship with Israel, and we stand with Israel if it's attacked ... we consider Israel as part of our national security. Peace in the Middle East is in our interest."



Immigration

Georgie Klevar of Decorah asked Grassley about immigration reform.

"Borders have to be secure, both north and south, what can we do now that we haven't already done to make the borders, secure?" she asked.

"What we haven't already done is to finish the fence (between the U.S. and Mexico). Some places we have to have parallel fence to make it effective," Grassley said

The U.S. is a magnet for jobs and for people who want to improve their lives, he said.

"They have a good work ethic, good family and spiritual values, we should honor that instead of not, on the other hand they break our laws. There's a lot to learn," he said.

Grassley said penalties should be increased for people who hire undocumented workers and laws need to change so when people are needed for jobs in the U.S., those workers can get here.

Grassley said a fence isn't needed along the country's northern border.



"Half the people here came legally and overstayed their visa. They're ought to be some way of tracing people. We know when they came in, but not when they leave," he said.