The sign on the wall in the Sonoma County Supervisors' Chambers in Santa Rosa read "Capacity: 100 people," but at least three times that many showed up for last Thursday's Gun Violence Prevention Public Forum.
The all-white, mostly male crowd filled the auditorium, with many seated on the floor or standing in the antechamber, while others spilled into the hallway and even stood outside the building in the cold night air.
Host Congressman Mike Thompson (D-Calif), the chair of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, opened the town hall meeting with a statement that the purpose of the forum was to solicit suggestions for how to combat firearm violence in the US.
However, the vast majority of the attendees had come to do precisely the latter.
Roughly 75% of the speakers offered no solutions to our nation's epidemic of firearm violence, instead merely proclaiming their categorical opposition to any new gun legislation whatsoever.
Each time a speaker generically denounced all gun restrictions as violations of the Second Amendment, or specifically railed against California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein's proposed renewal of the 1994 ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, the hall erupted in cheers and applause.
On the handful of occasions when a speaker expressed support for the assault weapons ban, the dozen or so listeners who clapped were largely drowned out by boos and catcalls.
One pro-ban speaker stunned the audience into near-silence by identifying himself as a gun-owner and hunter, and then proceeding to call for a blanket prohibition on all semi-automatic weapons, as well as magazines with more than three rounds.
"If you need more than three bullets to kill a deer," concluded the former NRA member, "you should spend more time at the shooting range." Many listeners gasped audibly, apparently too shocked to protest.
Several gun control opponents did offer suggestions, mostly in favor of increased access to mental health care, better gun safety education, and greater personal and parental responsibility (all good ideas in any case, if somewhat tangential to the issue).
Others called for restrictions on violent video games, an end to "gun-free" school zones, and supplying teachers with firearms and combat training.
A few speakers went to new and creative extremes, such as the grandmother who proposed arming all children "so they can protect themselves."
Through it all, Congressman Thompson sat attentively, giving his full attention to each constituent who spoke, and staying an hour and a half past the forum's scheduled 8pm end time to let everyone have his or her say.
When speakers called for armed guards in schools, Thompson did not tell them that Columbine High School and Virgina Tech had armed guards at the time of the massacres there, or remind them that there was a mass shooting at (obviously well-armed) Fort Hood.
When speakers demanded "What part of 'shall not be infringed' [quoting the Second Amendment] don't you understand?", Thompson did not ask "What part of 'well-regulated' [quoting the same amendment] don't you understand?"
When speakers declared they needed guns for protection against intruders because "the police are too slow," Thompson did not inform them that a New England Journal of Medicine study found that gun-owners are three times more likely to be killed (usually by family members) than people living in homes without guns; nor did he mention the Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection and Critical Care study that determined that guns kept in the home are twenty-two times more likely to be used in accidental shootings, murders, assaults, and suicide attempts than in acts of self-defense.
When speakers insisted they needed assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to "ward off tyrannical government," Thompson did not reply that no private firearms arsenal could hope to withstand the world's most powerful military, let alone secret CIA drone strikes or even a small ATF seige.
When speakers decried the high rates of violent crime in the United Kingdom--where guns are strictly controlled--Thompson did not counter that the US homicide rate is four times the UK rate, or that (due primarily to suicides) the US firearm-related death rate is over forty times that of the UK.
When a man spoke of the sanctity of the Second Amendment in one breath, then proposed in the next that a ban on violent video games would be easy to enact because "you people are smart enough to get around the First Amendment," Thompson didn't even blink.
And when another speaker announced (to raucous applause) that if Congress passes an assault weapons ban and people "get out a rope and hang [Thompson], that would be fine," the representative merely thanked him as he did all the others.
This Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden is due to present his comprehensive gun violence prevention recommendations to President Obama.
Clearly, Biden's proposals would be be enhanced by a program designed to discover and promulgate the secret to the serene restraint displayed by Congressman Mike Thompson at last Thursday's forum.