The town hall was recorded at George Mason University in and broadcast on January 7, 2016
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: And good evening from George Mason University here in Fairfax, Virginia. We are here tonight to talk about one of the most divisive issues in America today: guns.
Now, protection is enshrined in the Constitution and the Second Amendment, and gun ownership is an integral part of American history and culture.
There are some 30,000 gun deaths in America each year. Two-thirds of them are suicides, one-third of them are homicides. So the question we want to confront tonight is how you find a balance between protecting the rights of American citizens who want to own guns, but preventing guns from getting into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.
We brought together people here tonight who represent really all sides of the issue: gun owners, gun sellers, people who’ve survived shootings or lost loved ones.
Some here believe that having more guns makes us all safer, and believe the right to bear arms defines us, preserves us from tyranny, and cannot be compromised in any way.
Others here tonight believe just as passionately that more needs to be done to limit the sale of firearms, and we respect all of their views and we want to hear from as many as we can tonight, in the hour ahead.
One voice you will not hear from tonight is the National Rifle Association. They’re the nation’s largest, most influential and powerful gun rights group. We invited them to be here. they – I think their office is just a couple miles away. They declined to take part.
Some of their members are here tonight, though, and we’re very thankful for that, and so are representatives from the National Firearms Retailers Association.
This town hall is not something the White House dreamed up or that the White House organized. CNN approached the White House shortly after the San Bernardino terror attacks with this idea, and we’re pleased that they agreed to participate, and pleased to welcome tonight the president of the United States, Barack Obama.
Hey, Mr. President. Welcome.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. Thanks. Thank you. Great to see you.
COOPER: Good to see you.
Let me start. Have you ever owned a gun?
OBAMA: I have never owned a gun. Now, up at Camp David, we’ve got some skeet shooting, so on a fairly regular basis, we get a 12-gauge and – I’m not making any claims about my marksmanship, but.
COOPER: Before you were president, did you ever feel a desire to get a gun, feel the need to get a gun?
OBAMA: You know, I grew up mostly in Hawaii, and other than hunting for wild pig, which they do once in a while, you know, there’s not the popularity of hunting and sportsmanship with guns as much as there are in other parts of the country.
COOPER: Right. I mean, I ask the question because there’s a lot of people out there who don’t trust you, obviously, on the issue of guns. You keep saying you don’t want to take away everybody’s guns, but there’s a lot of people out there tonight watching who don’t believe you. There’s a lot of people in this room who, frankly, don’t believe you.
And it’s not that you don’t really have personal experience having owned a gun, but it’s that things you said – support for Australia’s tough anti-gun policies. They banned semiautomatic assault rifles, they – they banned even shotguns in Australia.
COOPER: You praised their policies over and over. Back in 2008, you said – you talked about bitter Americans clinging to their guns. Even now, these executive actions tended (ph) to cause a lot of concern among a lot of people.
What can you say to somebody tonight to convince them that you don’t want to take away everybody’s guns? That you’re not coming for their guns?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, Anderson, I think it’s useful to keep in mind, I’ve been, now, president for over seven years, and gun sales don’t seem to have suffered during that time.
COOPER: If anything, actually, you’ve helped.
OBAMA: They’ve – they’ve – gone up. I’ve – been very good for gun manufacturers.
More importantly, let – I’ll tell you a story that, I think, indicates how I see the issue. Back in 2007, 2008, when I was campaigning, I’d leave Chicago, a city which is wonderful – I couldn’t be prouder of my city – but where, every week, there’s a story about a young person getting shot.
Some are gang members, and it’s turf battles. Sometimes it’s innocent victims.
COOPER: Fifty-five people have been shot in Chicago in the last seven days.
OBAMA: Sometimes it’s happened just a few blocks from my house, and I live in a reasonably good neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. So that’s one image. All right? Talking to families who’ve gone through the pain of losing somebody because of violence in Chicago, gun violence.
COOPER: Michelle and I are, then, campaigning out in Iowa, and we’re going to farms, and we’re going to counties, and at one point, Michelle turned to me, and she said, you know, if I was living in a farmhouse where the sheriff’s department is pretty far away and somebody can just turn off the highway and come up to the farm, I’d want to have a shotgun or a rifle to make sure that I was protected and my family was protected. And she was absolutely right.
And so part of the reason I think that this ends up being such a difficult issue is because people occupy different realities. There are a whole bunch of law-abiding citizens who have grown up hunting with their dad or going to the shooting range, and are responsible gun-owners, and then there’s the reality that there are neighborhoods around the country where it is easier for a 12- or a 13-year-old to purchase a gun and cheaper than it is for them to get a book.
COOPER: But what you’re proposing, what you proposed this week, the executive actions, the other things, are they really going to be effective? And I ask this because the vast majority of felons out there – I mean, we can all agree, criminals should not get guns. We want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. The vast majority of criminals get their guns from – either illegally or for family or friends. So background checks is not something that’s going to affect them, is it?
OBAMA: Well, but that’s not exactly accurate. Look, first of all, it’s important for everybody to understand what I’ve proposed and what I haven’t proposed. What I’ve said consistently throughout my presidency is I respect the Second Amendment, I respect the right to bear arms. I respect people who want a gun for self-protection, for hunting, for sportsmanship.
But all of us can agree that it makes sense to do everything we can to keep guns out of the hands of people who would try to do others harm or to do themselves harm, because every year we’re losing 30,000 people to gun violence. Two-thirds of those are actually suicides. Hundreds of kids under the age of 18 are being shot or shooting themselves, often by accident, many of them under the age of 5.
And so if we can combine gun safety with sensible background checks and some other steps, we’re not going to eliminate gun violence, but we will lessen it. And if we take that number from 30,000 down to, let’s say, 28,000, that’s 2,000 families who don’t have to go through what the families at Newtown or San Bernardino or Charleston went through.
And so what we’ve proposed is that if you have a background check system that has a bunch of big loopholes, which is why a lot of criminals and people who shouldn’t have guns are able to get guns…
COOPER: But they’re not buying them at gun shows. Only 1 percent of criminals are buying them at gun shows.
OBAMA: Well, no, but this is what happens. Let’s go back to the city of Chicago that has strong gun control laws. And oftentimes, the NRA will point to that as an example and say, see, these things don’t work.
Well, the problem is, is that about 30 percent, 40 percent of those guns are coming from Indiana across the border, where there are much laxer laws, and so folks will go to a gun show and purchase a whole bunch of firearms, put them in a van, drive up into Mike Pfleger’s neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago where his parish is, open up the trunk, and those things are for sale.
Now, technically, you could say those folks bought them illegally, but it was facilitated by the fact that what used to be a small exception that said collectors and hobbyists don’t need to go through a background check has become this massive industry where people who are doing business are, in fact, saying that they’re not in the business of selling guns, but are.
And all we’re saying here is, is that we want to put everybody on notice that the definition of doing business, which means you have to register and it means you have to run a background check, is if you are making a profit and repeatedly selling guns, then you should have to follow the same rules as every other gun dealer. And what it means…
COOPER: But there’s a lot of people who believe that’s not specific enough. Because there’s a lot of, you know, fathers and sons who sell guns every now and then at gun shows. Are they going to have to now start doing background checks? Are they going to start to have to register?
OBAMA: Look, what the Justice Department has done is provided a whole range of very specific examples. And what we ultimately need, I believe, is for Congress to set up a system that is efficient, that doesn’t inconvenience the lawful gun seller, or purchaser, but, that makes sure that we’re doing the best background check possible. And, the fact, Anderson, the system may not catch every single person, or there may be a circumstance where somebody doesn’t think that they have to register, or do, and that may cause some red tape, and bureaucracy for them – which – or inconvenience, has to be weighed against the fact that we may be able to save a whole bunch of families from the grief that some of the people in this audience have had to go through.
And, keep in mind, for the gun owners who are in attendance here, my suspicion is that you all had to go through a background check. And it didn’t prevent you from getting a weapon. And, the notion that you should have to do that, but there are a whole bunch of folks who are less responsible than you who don’t have to do it doesn’t make much sense. So, why we should resist this – keep in mind that, historically, the NRA was in favor of background checks.
Historically, many in the Republican party were in favor of background checks. And, what’s changed is not that my proposals are particularly radical, what’s changed is that we’ve suddenly created an atmosphere where I put out a proposal like background checks, or after Sandy Hook, we’re calling on Congress along with people like Gabby Giffords who herself was a victim of gun violence, we put out a proposal that is commonsense, modest, does not claim to solve every problem, is respectful of the second amendment. And, the way it is described is that we’re trying to take away everybody’s guns.
And, part of the reason I welcomed this opportunity by CNN to have a good discussion debate about it is because our position is consistently mischaracterized. And, by the way, there’s a reason why the NRA is not here.
Their just down the street. And, since this is the main reason they exist, you’d think they’d be prepared to have a debate with…
COOPER: … would you be be willing to meet with them…