Anderson Cooper sat opposite the President in an auditorium at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA filled with people who, Cooper promised, represented every side of the gun control debate. Both men pointed out that the NRA, headquartered nearby, declined an invitation to participate, although there would be NRA supporters in the audience.
Barack Obama was composed and calm — but also clearly moved by the opportunity to make his case: If we can reduce the number of killings from guns to 28,000 from 30,000, he said, “well that’s 2,000 families that won’t have to suffer” like the families of those kids in Newtown and the people in San Bernardino.
The most heated moment of the CNN-sponsored evening came not from one of the questioners but from Cooper, responding to Obama’s assertion that conspiracy theorists accuse him of wanting to take away everyone’s guns. The host interrupted Obama to ask if it’s fair to use the word “conspiracy.” The President was obviously miffed by the question, calling the interviewer “Cooper” instead of Anderson for the first time.
“It is a conspiracy!” Obama said, nearly flustered for the only time during the 70-minute exchange. “Are you suggesting that the idea we have been plotting to take everyone’s guns away is not a conspiracy? It is a false notion that I believe is commercially or politically motivated. I only have another year!”
Here’s an abbreviated rundown of some of the questions and answers from the pre-selected audience members:
Taya Kyle, widow of murdered “American Sniper” Chris Kyle: Why don’t we celebrate the fact that we have the lowest murder rate in history? Obama: We should.
Rape victim ID’d as an NRA supporter: Why are you trying to make it harder for me to protect myself and my children? Obama: We’re not.
Sheriff running for Congress: How would you have stopped the mass attacks? Obama: Crime will always be with us. But let’s not say that because we can’t stop all crime, we shouldn’t try to stop some crime. (Applause)
Cooper ran a clip of the President choking up and brushing away tears at his announcement of the executive orders. “Many people were surprised by that,” Cooper said. “So was I,” Obama said, adding that visiting Newtown two days after the slaughter there was the first time he had ever seen Secret Service agents on duty cry. “Stop exaggerating or mischaracterizing what we’re trying to do,” he said to the people who are fiercely against any attempt to tighten controls on the purchase of firearms.
Chicago priest, where gun violence is out of control: Why can’t we title guns the way we title cars, so when you sell a gun, if you don’t transfer the title and something happens, it’s on you. Obama: People think that’s going too far. We have the ability to develop smart guns — except Colt and Smith & Wesson were attacked by the NRA as surrendering for even suggesting such a thing. And the government has been forbidden even to do research on such proposals.
Gun dealer: Instead of adding 200 auditors, as you called for, why not add ATF agents? Obama: This is about enforcing existing laws and closing giant loopholes. And it’s the fault of the Republican Congress that the Bureau of ATF “has been shrank, I mean shrunk (it’s late and you know what I meant).”
Mark Kelly, astronaut husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was brutally attacked by a gunman, at his side: We’re gun owners. But when we testified before Congress we heard not only from the NRA but from Senators, that more gun control will lead to tyranny. (This question led to the exchange between Cooper and the President over the use of the word “conspiracy.”)
18-year-old who lost his brother to gun violence: What is your advice to those who have grown up around violence? A: Obama repeated a theme he returned to several times during the event — that once upon a time if you as a grown-up came upon a group of kids misbehaving, you could tell them to quit it. Now you’re worried about getting shot.
As Cooper then closed the session and turned the program over to CNN bloviators of the right and left, Obama was seen making contact with as many folks in the audience as possible.