FAIRFAX, Va. — President Barack Obama tore into the National Rifle Association on Thursday as he sought support for his actions on gun control, accusing the powerful lobby group of peddling an “imaginary fiction” that he said has distorted the national debate about gun violence.
In a prime-time, televised town hall meeting, Obama dismissed what he called a “conspiracy” alleging that the federal government — and Obama in particular — wants to seize all firearms as a precursor to imposing martial law. He blamed that notion on the NRA and like-minded groups that convince its members that “somebody’s going to come grab your guns.”
“Yes, that is a conspiracy,” Obama said. “I’m only going to be here for another year. When would I have started on this enterprise?”
Obama defended his support for the constitutional right to gun ownership while arguing it was consistent with his efforts to curb violence and mass shootings. He said the NRA refused to acknowledge the government’s responsibility to make legal products safer, citing seat belts and child-proof medicine bottles as examples.
“If you listen to the rhetoric, it is so over the top, and so overheated,” Obama said, describing it as a ploy to drive up gun sales.
Taking the stage at George Mason University, Obama said he has always been willing to meet with the NRA — if they’re willing to address the facts. He said the NRA was invited to the town hall but declined to participate.
Part of a concerted White House push to promote the executive orders on guns the president unveiled this week, the town hall attracted a number of high-profile figures in the gun debate, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago, greets former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., at President Barack Obama’s televised town hall meeting. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Obama took questions from Taya Kyle, whose late husband was depicted in the film “American Sniper,” and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, whose daughter Hadiya was shot and killed near Obama’s Chicago home.
She thanked the president for “making it more difficult for guns to get in the hands of those that shouldn’t have them. Thank you for the action you took on Tuesday.”
“But I want to ask a question. How can we stop the trafficking of guns from states with looser gun laws into states with tougher gun laws? Because I believe that’s the case, you know, often in Chicago, and possibly the source of the gun that shot and murdered my daughter,” Pendleton said, according to a CNN transcript.
Obama responded: “If we are able to set up a strong background check system — and my proposal, by the way, includes hiring — having the FBI hire a couple hundred more people to help process background checks . . . or 200 more ATF agents to be able to go after unscrupulous gun dealers, then that will apply across the country.
“Now, we can’t guarantee that criminals are not going to have ways of getting guns. But, for example, it may be a little more difficult and a little more expensive. And, you know, the laws of supply and demand mean that if something’s harder to get and it’s a little more expensive to get, then fewer people get them. And that in and of itself could make a difference,” he added.
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, mother of slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton, is seen on a television monitor asking President Barack Obama a question during a CNN televised town hall meeting. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side, also posed a question to the president, thanking Obama for his “courage” in pushing for new gun control laws, but asking why guns can’t carry titles like automobiles.
“I understand why people are pushing against you, because I understand it’s a business and it’s about a business,” Pfleger said. “And so if we cut back the easy access to guns, less money for the gun manufacturers, less money for the gun lobby, I understand the business of it.
“But that business is causing blood and the kids that are dying in Chicago. And for many years, nobody even cared about Chicago because the violence is primarily black and brown.
“The reality is that I don’t understand why we can’t title guns just like cars. If I have a car and I give it to you, Mr. President, and I don’t transfer a title, and you’re in an accident, it’s on me. We don’t take cars away by putting titles on them. Why can’t we do that with guns?”
Obama praised the activist priest for his “heroic work at St. Sabina Parish” in Chicago, but said there was no “national consensus” for licensing or registration of guns, in part because of “people’s concern that that becomes a prelude to taking people’s guns away.”
The president used the question to attack the NRA.
Obama said the NRA is funded by gun manufacturers and has blocked safety measures he thinks there would be a market for, including smart gun technology.
Several NRA members were in the audience for the town hall, which was organized and hosted by CNN.
“There’s a reason why the NRA’s not here. They’re just down the street,” Obama said, referring to the group’s nearby headquarters. “Since this is a main reason they exist, you’d think that they’d be prepared to have a debate with the president.”
The White House has sought to portray the NRA, the nation’s largest gun group, as possessing a disproportionate influence over lawmakers that has prevented new gun laws despite polls that show broad U.S. support for measures like universal background checks.
Last year, following a series of mass shootings, Obama pledged to “politicize” the issue in an attempt to level the playing field for gun control supporters.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said ahead of the event that the group saw “no reason to participate in a public relations spectacle orchestrated by the White House.”
Still, the group pushed back on Obama in real time on Twitter, noting in one tweet that “none of the president’s orders would have stopped any of the recent mass shootings.”
The American Firearms Retailers Association, another lobby group that represents gun dealers, did participate.
Asked how business had been since Obama took office, Kris Jacob, vice president of the group, replied: “It’s been busy.”
“There’s a very serious concern in this country about personal security,” he added.
Obama’s broadside against the NRA came two days after unveiling a package of executive actions aimed at keeping guns from people who shouldn’t have them. The centerpiece is new federal guidance that seeks to clarify who is “in the business” of selling firearms, triggering a requirement to get a license and conduct background checks on all prospective buyers.
The plan has drawn intense criticism from gun rights groups that have accused the president of trampling on the Second Amendment and railroading Congress by taking action on his own without new laws.
Just after his 2012 re-election, Obama pushed hard for a bipartisan gun control bill that collapsed in the Senate, ending any realistic prospects for a legislative solution in the near term.
Ahead of the town hall, Obama put political candidates on notice that he would refuse to support or campaign for anyone who “does not support common-sense gun reform” — including Democrats.
All the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination support stricter gun laws, so Obama’s declaration in a New York Times op-ed isn’t likely to have an impact on the race to replace him. Instead, it appeared aimed at Democratic congressional candidates from competitive districts who might want Obama’s support on the campaign trail this year.
JOSH LEDERMAN AND KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press
Lederman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kathleen Hennessey and Sun-Times staff contributed to this report.