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Vigil held to end gun violence in the Chippewa Valley, across the country

Gun violence, both here in the Chippewa Valley and across the nation, needs to come to an end, says Noah Reif, an area organizer for Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

A vigil to end gun violence was held Wednesday night at Phoenix Park. Reif said key issues were being addressed.

“We need to take action and take solidarity that gun violence needs to be addressed in the community,” Reif said. “These (shooting) actions are not isolated. It seems like every week, every day, we are hearing about this epidemic of gun violence.”

Reif is troubled that students now participate in active shooting drills in schools.

“This is extremely traumatizing and has an effect on mental health,” he said. “People are afraid to be in our community, to be at places of worship, or at work.”

Among the speakers Wednesday were Sou Vang — a relative of Laile Vang, who was shot and killed July 28 in Lake Hallie — and Carolyn Miller, an area nurse who was sharing her experience of domestic and gun violence.

The goal was to gather people who are victims and support survivors, and look at ideas for taking action to address gun violence.

Eau Claire school board President Eric Torres said it was important for the district to be involved in the discussion on ending gun violence.

“In our role as public educators, it’s important to create and maintain a safe learning environment,” Torres said.

State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, agreed that the vigil needs to point out these acts of violence aren’t isolated incidents in cities like Dayton, Ohio, or El Paso, Texas.

“It’s a moment to pause and realize this isn’t just happening across the country, it’s happening in our backyard,” Emerson said.

Not only was there the shootings in Lake Hallie and Lafayette the weekend of July 26-28 that left four dead, plus the shooter, there also was a reported planned shooting at the Menards distribution center, Emerson noted.

The vigil isn’t just about mass shootings, either.

“This is a big suicide prevention thing as well,” she said.

Emerson said she is continuing to push measures in the Legislature, such as universal background checks. Currently, only licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks prior to a gun sale. The bill Emerson is pushing would require all firearm sales, including those from unlicensed sellers, to include a background check.

Emerson also is working on an idea on a “red flag law,” which would make it easier to confiscate guns from people who are showing signs of being at-risk of using them. Emerson said that type of law would help in a case like the Menards distribution center investigation.

“We haven’t had a draft out there yet,” Emerson said of the red flag proposal. “It’s something we’re working on with the Attorney General’s office.”

Another idea is to reinstate a 48-hour waiting period between the time a person attempts to purchase a gun and when the gun is sold to that person.

“You can (under present law) walk in (to purchase a gun), and as long as you pass your background check, which can take a minute or two, you can walk out with your gun,” she said.

Another idea for a bill is to prohibit people who have been convicted of a misdemeanor involving domestic violence from being allowed to own a gun, she said.

“What we’re really trying to do is prevent people, who shouldn’t have guns, from having guns,” Emerson said.

State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, had doubts about the proposed legislation.

“Gun violence has occurred since guns were invented,” Bernier said. “If there were an easy solution, we would have done it by now. I’m working on mental health issues. We have a societal issue we need to look at more.”

Bernier said she “isn’t adverse to background checks,” but she added she wasn’t confident that any of the mass shootings would have been avoided if those background checks had been in place.

Bernier added that red flag laws sound like a good idea, but she added that many of those measures are already available to judges and law enforcement.

“Let’s have a conversation about why people are behaving the way they are,” Bernier said.

The Northwest Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative worked with Citizen Action of Wisconsin in hosting the event.

Dorian aims for US, causes limited damage in Caribbean

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hurricane Dorian caused limited damage in the northern Caribbean as it left the region Wednesday night, setting its sights on the U.S. mainland as it threatened to grow into a dangerous Category 3 storm.

Power outages and flooding were reported across the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra after Dorian hit St. Thomas as a Category 1 storm.

“We’re happy because there are no damages to report,” Culebra Mayor William Solís told The Associated Press, noting that only one community lost power.

Meanwhile, Dorian caused an island-wide blackout in St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and scattered power outages in St. Croix, government spokesman Richard Motta told AP. In addition, the storm downed trees and at least one electric post in St. Thomas, he said, adding that there were no reports of major flooding.

“We are grateful that it wasn’t a stronger storm,” he said.

There were no immediate reports of damage in the British Virgin Islands, where Gov. Augustus Jaspert said crews were already clearing roads and inspecting infrastructure by late Wednesday afternoon.

Dorian had prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to declare a state of emergency Tuesday night and order federal assistance for local authorities.

At 8 p.m. EDT, Dorian was centered about 60 miles northwest of San Juan. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph while moving northwest at 13 mph.

The Hurricane Center said the storm could grow into a dangerous Category 3 storm as it pushes northwest in the general direction of Florida.

Dennis Feltgen, a Hurricane Center meteorologist in Miami, said Dorian may grow in size and could land anywhere from South Florida to South Carolina on Sunday or Monday.

“This will be a large storm approaching the Southeast,” he said.

People in Florida were starting to get ready for a possible Labor Day weekend strike, with county governments along Florida’s east-central coast distributing sandbags and many residents rushing to warehouse retailers to load up on water, canned food and emergency supplies.

“All Floridians on the East Coast should have 7 days of supplies, prepare their homes & follow the track closely,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a tweet. Later Wednesday, he declared a state of emergency for the counties in the storm’s path.

A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning remained in effect for Puerto Rico, with Dorian expected to dump 4 to 6 inches of rain with isolated amounts of 8 inches in the eastern part of the island.

However, Puerto Rico seemed to be spared any heavy wind and rain, a huge relief to many on an island where blue tarps still cover some 30,000 homes nearly two years after Hurricane Maria. The island’s 3.2 million inhabitants also depend on an unstable power grid that remains prone to outages since it was destroyed by Maria, a Category 4 storm.

Ramonita Torres, a thin, stooped, 74-year-old woman who lives by herself in the impoverished, flood-prone neighborhood of Las Monjas in the capital of San Juan, was still trying to rebuild the home she nearly lost after Maria but was not able to secure the pieces of zinc that now serve as her roof.

“There’s no money for that,” she said, shaking her head.

Several hundred customers were without power across Puerto Rico by Wednesday evening, according to Ángel Figueroa, president of a union that represents power workers.

Police said an 80-year-old man in the northern town of Bayamón died on Wednesday after he fell trying to climb up to his roof to clear it of debris ahead of the storm.

Dorian initially had been projected to brush the western part of Puerto Rico and the change in the storm’s course caught some off guard in Culebra and Vieques, both popular tourist destinations.

Earlier, Trump sent a tweet assuring islanders that “FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job.”

He added a jab at Puerto Rican officials who have accused this administration of a slow and inadequate response to Hurricane Maria: “When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You — Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!”

The mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, tweeted that Trump needs to “calm down get out of the way and make way for those of us who are actually doing the work on the ground,” adding that maybe he “will understand this time around THIS IS NOT ABOUT HIM; THIS IS NOT ABOUT POLITICS; THIS IS ABOUT SAVING LIVES.”

Dorian earlier caused power outages and downed trees in Barbados and St. Lucia and flooding in islands including Martinique.

Sponsors encouraged by bipartisan support for smoking bill

Local legislators have high hopes for a bipartisan bill that would raise the age for buying or owning tobacco and e-cigarette products in Wisconsin from 18 to 21.

Introduced last week by state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, the bill has support from 12 of his Senate colleagues and 30 in the Assembly, including representatives from the Chippewa Valley.

“I think this is a smart thing to do for public health,” said state Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire.

Raising the age where people are allowed to buy products containing the addictive chemical nicotine will make fewer people develop longtime habits of smoking and vaping, she said.

“Studies have shown the older people are when they start smoking the less likely they are to be a lifelong smoker,” Emerson said.

Another cosponsor of the bill is state Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona.

He said the issue of smoking hits home for his family as his mother-in-law died of throat cancer attributed to second-hand smoke exposure.

“It definitely is a bipartisan issue,” James said. “It affects everyone in the entire state.”

The bill is backed by 14 Republicans and 29 Democrats from around Wisconsin, leading sponsors to believes it has momentum to become a law.

“I think this might be one of the things we can actually get a win on,” Emerson said.

When the Senate introduced the bill a week ago, it was referred to the Committee on Health and Human Services.

State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said she isn’t a big fan of the measure to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco to 21, but she said she would likely support it if it goes to the Senate floor for a vote.

Bernier said she is perplexed that there is a push to expand the legalization of marijuana at the same time as the push to raise the age limit on tobacco.

“We have less and less smoking (tobacco products),” she said.

While smoking traditional tobacco products has been declining, the rise in vaping is the concern that drove James’ support for the bill.

Before being elected last fall to the state Legislature, James also took action against vaping in his old job as Altoona’s police chief.

“When I was chief of police, when these first came out, I pegged it right on the head there would be problem,” he said.

One of his last acts as police chief was instituting fines for students under 17 that were caught vaping at school after getting reports that it was a growing problem in Altoona’s schools.

After e-cigarette products appeared several years ago and were promoted as an alternative to smoking tobacco, there are now reports of health problems linked to using them.

In announcing his bill, Marklein cited a Wisconsin Department of Health Services report of 12 cases of lung disease in adults tied to vaping and another 13 under investigation.

According to an Associated Press article, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 193 people in 22 states contracted severe respiratory illnesses after vaping, including an Illinois patient who died. However, the federal agency cautioned that a direct link between the illnesses and vaping had not been established and cases are still being investigated.

James has additional concerns about e-cigarettes, including the lack of research into the vapors produced by them, problems with batteries in the devices overheating, and the ability to use the gadgets to smoke illegal drugs.

“I don’t think there was due diligence done as far as these devices go,” he said.

Emerson also points to sweet, candy-like flavors such as Bubble Gum sold by vaping brands as evidence they are targeting children as customers.

“We can’t let this vaping stuff go without some regulation on it,” she said.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have already raised the age for buying tobacco, vaping other nicotine-containing products to 21, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.