Obama earns kudos, but gun debate remains entrenched after Q&A

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to remarks from Taya Kyle, widow of US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, as he participates in a live town hall event on reducing gun violence hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper (R) at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia January 7, 2016. © Kevin Lamarque
President Obama took questions from pro and anti-gun control audience members of CNN’s “Guns in America” town hall on Thursday, with many viewers doubting a single mind was changed. Aside from one heated moment from Obama, the exchanges were calm.

From George Mason University in Virginia, Anderson Cooper opened the highly promoted event by stressing that CNN first took the idea to the White House, not the other way around. The remark was related to a claim the National Rifle Association made upon declining its invitation to participate.

"The National Rifle Association sees no reason to participate in a public relations spectacle orchestrated by the White House," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told CNN. Previously, the NRA had used the word “organized” to depict the administration’s involvement.

After introducing the president, Cooper began with a personal question. Had Obama, before becoming president, ever felt the desire or need to buy a gun? Obama explained that growing up in Hawaii, the need was not there, and that later in life he still never bought one. He did mention that his wife has said she would be interested depending on where they lived after the White House.

Next, Cooper referenced a 2008 campaign trail quote from then Senator Obama, who said “bitter” Americans “cling to guns.” How could Obama convince those offended by the remarks to trust he’s not coming to take those guns away?

“I’ve been very good for gun manufacturers,” Obama said with levity, referencing record high sales.

Obama implored his opponents to leave behind rhetoric not based in fact, saying his executive actions and pushes for legislation have not been about gun confiscation. “Our position is constantly mischaracterized,” the president said.

The worry Obama implored his opponents to share is that it is too easy for undesirable elements in society to gain easy access to deadly weapons. The president used his hometown of Chicago as an example, saying many of the guns brought into the highly regulated city are from neighboring states such as Indiana, which are less regulated.

The first question from the audience came from Taya Kyle, widow of the infamous sniper Chris Kyle who was shot and killed by a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The laws that we create don't stop these horrific things from happening, right? And that's a very tough pill to swallow,” Kyle said, noting that federal prosecution of gun crimes is lagging at 40 percent. She challenged Obama’s words, suggesting there is a "better use of our time to give people hope in a different way."

Obama thanked Kyle and her deceased husband for their sacrifices, then credited her as likely a better marksman than himself. But he addressed her point about federal law enforcement’s falling behind on caseloads, calling out Republicans in Congress who have cut the budget of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

While the exchanges throughout the event were two-sided, there was only one statement each. Kimberly Carbon, a rape victim who has championed the right of self-defense with guns, did take to CNN after the question and answer session to reflect on Obama’s answer to her.

"I went into this knowing that no matter what I say, it's not going to change his mind," Carbon said. 

That take away is not far off from others’ reactions to the rest of the discourse. Whether it was the participants against increased gun control like Sheriff Paul Babeau, who is a Republican running for Congress in Arizona, or Fr. Michael Pfleger, a longtime Obama ally from Chicago, the brief dialogues were disconnected to the point of being two monologues with no feedback mechanism. 

Vice president of American Firearms Retailers Association Chris Jacobs spoke of the 53,000 licensed gun sellers nationwide who work with law enforcement to keep weapons out of the wrong hands. Obama recognized their efforts, saying all private transactions should be held to the same standard.

Chicago student Tre Bosley, 18, whose brother and "countless" others had died in shootings, asked Obama what advice he had for Chicago youth. Obama encouraged him to work hard, pursue an education, and listen to his mother, adding that Bosley reminded him of his younger self, though “if I screwed up, I wasn’t at risk of getting shot," Obama said.

Major supporters of gun control, Mark Kelly and his wife, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, did not challenge the president to go further as another participant, Cleo Pendleton, did. Kelly asked sarcastically how the president would go about confiscating 350 million guns stored in 65 million places.

The one heated moment was actually between Obama and CNN’s Cooper. After Obama accused the base of his opposition as believing in conspiracy theories about government gun confiscation, Cooper tried to give him a chance to reword the point.

“Yes, that is a conspiracy, I would hope you would agree with that," Obama said, speaking of a secret plan to confiscate guns. "Is that controversial?”

Cooper later explained on CNN, “I wanted him to actually address people who disagree with him.”

Nonetheless, cooler heads prevailed. Obama earned kudos from Charles C. W. Cooke, a writer for National Review magazine, who tweeted, "Good for Obama for acknowledging that two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. Many advocates of gun control do not."

Another conservative commentator, Jim Antle, politics editor for the Washington Examiner, found the post-show analysis by CNN to be of little value, tweeting, “everyone who already agreed with President Obama still agrees with him, everyone who disagreed still disagrees.”   

That appeared to be reflective of the wider response on Twitter as well, with those on the left and right repeating talking points during the CNN event. 

Skipping CNN, the NRA took to Fox News to comment on the town hall.

"The president doesn’t have a monopoly on compassion," NRA Executive Director Chris Cox said. "The president doesn’t get to lecture us on loving our kids. This presidency has done nothing to keep us safe."

“This president has lost all credibility," Cox added.