FAIRFAX, Va. — President Barack Obama rejected the “imaginary fiction” that he wanted to take away the guns of law-abiding Americans during a town hall meeting on his gun policies aired on CNN Thursday night.
“The way it is described, is that we are trying to take away everybody’s guns,” Obama said, charging that his opponents had twisted his plans on gun safety measures.
“Our position is consistently mischaracterized,” Obama said. “If you listen to the rhetoric, it is so over-the-top, it is so overheated.”
The town hall was a rare forum for a President who is entering his final full year in office. He fielded questions from those who support his actions, including a priest and victims of gun violence at the “Guns in America” special. But he also heard from a wide range of advocates opposed to his policies, including a gun executive, a sheriff, a rape survivor and a widow who criticized his executive actions that would, among other things, narrow the so-called “gun-show loophole” on background checks.
The President also said that he would be happy to meet with representatives of the National Rifle Association, which declined to take part in the town hall meeting even though other gun rights advocates did attend. But he said the conversation would have to be based on facts, “not some imaginary fiction in which Obama is trying to take away your guns.”
He dismissed such accusations as conspiracies, and that the notion that he would be paving the way for eventual martial law as absurd given that he didn’t have much time left in the White House.
“I’m only going to be here for another year,” he said.
Obama is headlining the “Guns in America” event exclusively on CNN to press for public support for the executive measures he announced on Tuesday. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Obama attributed some of the tensions over the issue to divergent perceptions on gun ownership between rural and inner city communities.
“Part of the reason, I think, that this ends up being such a difficult issue is because people occupy different realities,” he said.
The President opened the event by acknowledging that he himself has never owned a gun and had little experience with them, stemming in part from his upbringing in Hawaii, where he said sport shooting is not as popular as in other parts of the country.
He then disputed the notion that most criminals got guns illegally or through personal connections, making background checks — a major focus on his policy initiative on guns — of little utility.
“All of us can agree that It makes sense to do everything we can to keep guns out of the hands of people who would do others harm, or themselves harm,” he said.
He called on Congress to set up a system that is “efficient” and doesn’t inconvenience lawful gun owners to create a background check system that would stem at least some illegal gun activity.
“The fact that the system doesn’t catch every single person … has to be weighed against the fact that we might be able to save a whole bunch of families from the grief that some of the people in this audience have had to go through,” he said.
He made a similar argument in response to a question from Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu, who said that the executive actions wouldn’t have prevented the mass shootings that prompted much of Obama’s push for greater gun control.
“How are we going to get them to follow the laws?” Babeu asked of those who commit gun crimes.
After Babeu was introduced as a Republican running for Congress, Obama responded with a hint of sarcasm as he wished him good luck in his race.
Obama sought to address the concerns of gun owners, who asked pointed questions about the President’s policy during the event. He also said he would be willing to speak to the NRA even though the organization declined to participate.
“I’m happy to meet with them. I’m happy to talk with them,” he said.
Before the town hall began, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told CNN the organization saw “no reason to participate in a public relations spectacle orchestrated by the White House.”
However, the NRA live-tweeted the town hall, using the hashtag for the event #GunsInAmerica.
A CNN spokesperson said that it was the network, not the White House, that proposed the idea of a town hall on guns and noted that the audience would be evenly divided between organizations that support the Second Amendment, including NRA members, as well as groups that back gun regulation.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump held a rally in Burlington, Vermont, at the same time as the forum and weighed in on the issue of firearms, attacking the idea of gun-free zones, though it wasn’t a topic raised by Obama or other participants Thursday night.
“You know what a gun-free zone is to a sicko? That’s bait!” he said. “I would get rid of gun-free zones on my first day. It gets signed.”
The town hall meeting includes around 100 guests invited by CNN. Former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was injured in an assassination attempt in 2011, and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who is now a gun control advocate, were there. Also in the audience was Taya Kyle, widow of Chris Kyle, the soldier portrayed in the movie “American Sniper” who was murdered in a gun crime.
In an op-ed piece on CNN.com Thursday, Kyle argued against greater gun control, saying existing laws should be enforced more effectively and arguing that Americans had a right to defend themselves against people set on committing evil.
“My government has proven that it’s not able to protect me against people who want to kill. And I don’t blame the government, because there is only one person to blame here: The man or woman who decided to kill,” Kyle wrote.
Another participant, Kimberly Corban, questioned Obama’s priorities in imposing gun restrictions.
“I have been unspeakably victimized once already, and I refuse to let that happen again to myself or my kids. So why can’t your administration see that these restrictions that you’re putting to make it harder for me to own a gun?” asked Corban, who survived a brutal rape.
He replied that nothing in his plans would make it more difficult for people like Corban to get a gun to defend herself.
“There really is nothing that we are proposing that prevents you or makes it harder for you to purchase a firearm if you need one,” Obama told Corban.
A CNN/ORC poll released earlier Thursday evening found that a majority of the public supports the measures that Obama outlined this week but less than half of Americans think they will actually work.
Support for the measures crosses party lines, with 67% of those asked saying they favor the changes. Some 85% of Democrats, 65% of independents and 51% of Republicans support the President’s moves.
But 57% of those polled also said that the measures would not be effective in reducing the number of people killed by guns. And 54% of people, including 79% of Republicans, disapprove of Obama’s decision to go around Congress and implement changes to gun policy by using executive power.
The cause of gun violence has become a deeply emotional issue for Obama. On Tuesday, he dissolved in emotion, tears rolling down his face, as he noted that the memory of the first-graders massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago were driving his efforts on reduce gun violence.
He recalled during the town hall that he was surprised by his tears days earlier at the White House, as many onlookers were.
Obama noted that he visited Newtown just two days after the mass killing, when it was still “very raw,” and that it was the only time he had seen Secret Service officers cry on duty.
“There’s a lot of heartache out there,” he said, and referred to other tragic problems confronting America.
So far, Obama’s attempts to put in place more gun control measures have largely failed. Both Democratic and Republican Congresses have not been amenable to further laws. In particular, Congress blocked his attempt to legislate stricter gun laws in 2013 following the Sandy Hook deaths, leaving the White House to resort to a set of executive actions at that time that fell far short of what lawmakers could have enacted.
And every time the President announces new executive measures, he faces claims of political overreach from opponents while gun sales tend to surge.
Opponents, including Republicans in the 2016 presidential race, have claimed that Obama’s moves are just a veiled attempt to take guns away from law-abiding Americans who want to defend themselves and to water down the constitutional right to bear arms.
At a campaign event in New Hampshire on Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said Obama was on a mission to undermine the rights guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution.
“You have a president that views the Constitution as a stale and outdated document and so he habitually tries to undermine it, especially the Second Amendment. He is obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment,” Rubio charged.
Obama renewed his push for gun regulations following a spree of mass shootings last year, including a one orchestrated by a radicalized Muslim couple in San Bernardino, California, in December in which 14 people died.
Republicans have criticized the President for raising the issue of gun control after the killings, saying he was downplaying the growing threat to Americans from Islamic terrorism on U.S. soil. But the White House argued that it would be prudent to make it more difficult for criminals and potential terrorists to get guns, particularly to build up large hauls of weapons, in the United States.