President Obama confronted scrutiny over his executive actions on guns head-on Thursday night in a town hall hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
The toughest questions at the town hall, which took place at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, didn’t come from Cooper, but from victims of gun violence.
The National Rifle Association, headquartered in Fairfax, declined to participate.
Here are some of those questions.
1. Why not celebrate how low the murder rate is?
The first question came from the widow of celebrated Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle, whose autobiography inspired the film American Sniper, survived four tours in Iraq only to be shot and killed at a gun range in Texas.
Gun ownership is at an all-time high, and the murder rate at an all-time low, Kyle’s widow, Taya, said: Why not celebrate that?
Murders and violent crime rates have been declining, Obama admitted, but he challenged the idea that the two were correlated with higher rates of gun ownership.
“If you look at where the areas are with higher gun ownership, those are the place where the crime rate hasn’t dropped that much. And you look at the places where there’s pretty stiff restrictions on gun ownership, in some of those places crimes dropped pretty quickly,” Obama said.
2. Why make it harder for victims to protect their families?
In 2006, an attacker forced his way inside Kimberly Corban’s home and raped her. The experience turned Corban into an advocate for handgun ownership and the NRA.
Corban, now a mother of two, asked the president, “Why can’t your administration see that these restrictions that you’re putting to make it harder for me to own a gun, or harder for me to take that [gun] where I need to be, is actually just making my kids and I less safe?”
“Nothing we’re proposing prevents you or makes it harder for you to purchase a firearm if you need one,” Obama answered, noting that if Corban was referring to concealed carry laws, those are decided at the state level.
He said he understood why she wanted a gun to feel safe. But, he added, he “certainly would like to make it a little harder for that assailant to have also had a gun. You certainly would want to make sure that if he gets released, that he now can’t do what he did to you to somebody else, and it’s going to be easier for us to prevent him from getting a gun if there’s a strong… background check system in place.”
3. Why not add more ATF agents to enforce gun laws?
Kris Jacob, vice president of the American Firearms Retailers Association, asked about the additional ATF personell who will be hired under Obama’s executive actions. “My question is around the executive order related to the investigators, the inspectors — the adding of 200 inspectors, who are more on the auditing and record-keeping side,” Jacob said. “Why not add 200 ATF agents on the law-enforcement side, to keep the criminals and the bad guys out of the stores in the first place?”
The president responded by saying the ATF budget has been cut by congressional Republicans who feed into the narrative that the government is trying to take Americans’ guns away.
“One of the most frustrating things that I hear is when people say — [people] who are opposed to any further laws — ‘Why don’t you just enforce the laws that are on the books?'” Obama said. “And those very same members of Congress then cut ATF budgets to make it impossible to enforce the law.”
4. How would Obama confiscate hundreds of millions of guns?
Former astronaut Mark Kelly, who with his wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, started the gun violence prevention group Americans for Responsible Solutions, asked a somewhat sarcastic question of the president. Pointing out the absurdity of the alarmists who claim Obama is trying to “take your guns away,” Kelly asked how Obama would go about rounding up all the guns scattered across America.
“With 350 million guns in 65 million… households, from Key West to Alaska — 350 million objects in 65 million places — if the federal government wanted to confiscate those objects, how would they do that?” he asked.
Obama tried to take seriously the idea that Americans are naturally suspicious by placing it in a historical context.
“What I think Mark is alluding to is… this notion of a conspiracy out there, and it gets wrapped up in concerns about the federal government. Now, there’s a long history of that, that’s in our DNA, you know? The United States was born suspicious of some distant authority,” Obama said.
5. No, seriously, is Obama trying to take everyone’s guns away?
The closest Obama got to heated Thursday night was when he defended his assertion that he did not want to go door-to-door to take away every American’s guns. He bristled when Anderson Cooper asked if it was fair to call the notion that he wanted to confiscate firearms a conspiracy. “A lot of people really believe this deeply,” Cooper said.
“Are you suggesting that the notion that we are creating a plot to take everybody’s guns away so that we can impose martial law… [is] a conspiracy? Yes, that is a conspiracy! I would hope that would agree with that. Is that controversial?”
The president added, “I’m only going to be here for another year. I don’t know when — when would I have started on this enterprise?”