Obama listens to a question from Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu during Thursday’s town hall. (Aude Guerrucci/Pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama took his plea for gun control to prime time on Thursday, but it is unclear how many minds his CNN town hall will change.
Obama took questions for just over an hour from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and audience members, some gun-rights advocates and others from the firearms-control community. The event came several days after Obama unveiled a series of executive actions to beef up the federal background check system and other moves intended to curb mass shootings.
“This is not a proposal to solve every problem,” Obama said. “It’s a modest way of getting started on improving the prospects for young women and young men … the same way we try to improve every other aspect of our lives. That’s all it is.”
Obama’s presidency has been marred by a series of mass shootings, including Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and San Bernardino, Calif., this past November. The former, which left 20 children dead at Sandy Hook elementary school, has touched Obama personally. On Tuesday, he teared up while speaking about these tragedies as he announced his executive actions.
Yet, recent polls suggest that Americans’ feelings about firearms are hardening.
The White House and CNN insisted the network — not the Obama administration — conceived the idea for the national broadcast and selected the attendees and those asking questions of the president. The unscripted nature of the event led to several surprising moments:
1. Obama admits “conspiracy” — sort of: When asked by Cooper if it is “fair” that some gun advocates believe the administration is conducting a “conspiracy” aimed at confiscating all firearms, Obama had a surprising — if tongue-and-cheek — answer.
“Yes, it is fair to call it a conspiracy,” he said. “Are you suggesting that the notion that we are creating a plot to take everyone’s guns away so we can impose martial law, yes, that is a conspiracy.”
The president was alluding to a conspiracy theory, but for some reason, left off the theory part. As he said after 9 p.m., “it’s kind of late.” Still, expect gun advocates and the far right to run with that line.
“I’m only going to be here for another year,” Obama said, his voice cracking at times. “When would I have started on this enterprise?”
2. Gun makers heart Obama?: In an early exchange with Cooper, Obama acknowledged that many gun rights advocates believe he is intent on taking away their firearms. Obama wasted no time taking on that claim, noting that gun sales have increased during his presidency.
“I’ve been very good for gun manufacturers,” he said.
In fact, firearms sales have doubled since Obama took office in January 2009. In a July 2015 report, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found gun sales spiked 140 percent to 10.8 million in 2013, the most recent year data was available. In 2008, gun manufacturers produced 4.5 million firearms.
3. NRA no-show: The country’s largest firearms advocacy organization, the National Rifle Association, was invited to participate in the town hall, according to CNN. But the group opted against sending a representative.
“There’s a reason why the NRA’s not here,” the president said. “They’re just down the street. And since this is the main reason they exist, you’d think they would be prepared to have a debate with the president.
“If you listen to the rhetoric” of the NRA and congressional Republicans, “it is so over the top, so overheated,” Obama said. He added that he would be “happy to meet with” NRA officials. He said White House officials have tried to set up meetings with the association multiple times.
The NRA’s Fairfax, Va., headquarters is located about three miles from George Mason University, where the town hall was held. A call to the association’s public affairs office was not returned by publication time. On Wednesday, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told CNN that “the National Rifle Association sees no reason to participate in a public relations spectacle orchestrated by the White House.”
4. Obama gets personal: The president did not repeat the emotional scene from Tuesday in the East Room of the White House, when he shed tears while talking about the slain Newtown students. But he did strike personal tones at times.
Obama told Tre Bosley, a teenage questioner from Chicago whose brother was shot dead 10 years ago, that he was not that different as a teenager — though the president said he likely goofed off more. Obama said he grew up in a more forgiving environment, one that did not yield concerns about being shot if something went wrong.
At another point, Obama talked about living in Illinois and befriending people from the rural, southern part of the state.
“Everybody hunts down there. And a lot of folks own guns. This is not, like, alien territory to me,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends … who are hunters.”
Obama also said, during a recent trip to Alaska, he ate moose. The big game animal was taken down by a gun.
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