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…
OBAMA: … a president…
COOPER: … they haven’t been to the White House for years (inaudible)…
OBAMA: … oh, no, no, we’ve invited them.
COOPER: So, right now, tonight, you’re saying you would be willing…
OBAMA: … we have invited them repeatedly, but if you listen to the rhetoric, it is so over the top, and so overheated, and most importantly, is not acknowledging the fact that there’s no other – consumer item that we purchase…
COOPER: … so is that an open invitation that you’ve…
OBAMA: … oh, hold on a second, let me finish this point, Cooper.
There’s nothing else in our lives that we purchase where we don’t try to make it a little safer if we can. Traffic fatalities have gone down drastically during my lifetime, and part of it is technology, and part of it is that the National Highway Safety Administration does research, and they figure out, you know what? Seat belts really work.
And, then we pass some laws to make sure seatbelts are fastened.
Air bags make a lot sense, let’s try those out. Toys, we say, you know what? We find out that kids are swallowing toys all the time, let’s make sure that the toys aren’t so small that they swallow them if they’re for toddlers, or infants. Medicine, kids can’t open Aspirin caps.
Now, the notion that we would not apply the same basic principles to gun ownership as we do to everything else that we own…
COOPER: … but you…
OBAMA: … just to try to make them safer, or the notion that anything we do to try to make them safer is somehow a plot to take away guns – that contradicts what we do to try to create a better life for Americans in every other area of our lives.
COOPER: Just so I’m clear, tonight you’re saying you would welcome to meet with the NRA?
OBAMA: Anderson, I’ve said this repeatedly, I’m happy to meet with them. I’m happy to talk to them, but, the conversation has to be based on facts and truth, and what we’re actually proposing, not some – you know, imaginary fiction in which Obama’s trying to take away your guns…
COOPER: … well, let’s talk about what you’re proposing…
OBAMA: … oh, and the reason, by the way, that gun sales spike not just before I propose something, every time there’s a mass shooting, gun sales spike.
And part of the reason is that the NRA has convinced many of its members that somebody’s going to come grab your guns, which is by the way, really profitable for the gun manufacturers. It’s a great advertising mechanism, but it’s not necessary. There is enough of a market out there for people who want protection, who are sportsmen, who want to go hunting with their kids and we can make it safer.
COOPER: I want to open this up to people in our audience.
COOPER: A lot of people have traveled far. I want you to meet Taya Kyle. She’s the widow of Chris Kyle, former Navy SEAL, author of “American Sniper.” Taya wrote a book, “American Life: A Memoir of Love, War, Faith and Renewal.”
Taya, we’re happy you’re here. What do you want to ask the president?
QUESTION: I appreciate you taking the time to come here. And I think that your message of hope is something I agree with. And I think it’s great. And I think that by creating new laws, you do give people hope. The thing is that the laws that we create don’t stop these horrific things from happening, right? And that’s a very tough pill to swallow.
We want to think that we can make a law and people will follow it. By the very nature of their crime, they’re not following it. By the very nature of looking at the people who hurt our loved ones here, I don’t know that any of them would have been stopped by the background check. And yet, I crave that desire for hope, too.
And so I think part of it we have to recognize that we cannot outlaw murder because people who are murdering, right, are – they’re breaking the law, but they also don’t have a moral code that we have. And so they could do the same amount of damage with a pipe bomb. The problem is that they want to murder.
And I’m wondering why it wouldn’t be a better use of our time to give people hope in a different way, to say, “You know what? We” – well first of all, actually, let me back up to that. Because with the laws, I know that at least last I heard, the federal prosecution of gun crimes was like 40 percent. And what I mean by that is that there are people lying on these forms already and we’re not prosecuting them. So there’s an issue there, right?
But instead, if we can give people hope and say also during this time while you’ve been president, we are at the lowest murder rate in our country – all-time low murders. We’re at an all-time high of gun ownership, right?
I’m not necessarily saying the two are correlated, but what I’m saying is that we’re at an all-time low for murder rate. That’s a big deal. And yet I think most of us in this country feel like it could happen at any moment. It could happen to any of us at any time.
And I’m almost finished. Just when – when you talk about the NRA, and after a mass shooting that gun sales go up, I would argue that it’s not necessarily that I think somebody’s going to come take my gun from me, but I want the hope – and the hope that I have the right to protect myself; that I don’t end up to be one of these families; that I have the freedom to carry whatever weapon I feel I need, just like your wife said on that farm (ph). You know, I don’t – the sheriff’s aren’t going to get to my house either.
And I understand that background checks aren’t necessarily going to stop me from getting a gun, but I also know that they wouldn’t have stopped any of the people here in this room from killing. And so it seems like almost a false sense of hope.
So why not celebrate where we are? I guess that’s my real question is…
QUESTION: Celebrate that we’re good people, and 99.9 percent of us are never going to kill anyone.
OBAMA: Well, let me make a couple of points. First of all, thanks to your husband for his service and thank you for your service, because extraordinary heroism that he and your family have shown in protecting all of us. And I’m very grateful for that.
Number two, what you said about murder rates and violent crime generally is something that we don’t celebrate enough. The fact of the matter is that violent crime has been steadily declining across America for a pretty long time. And you wouldn’t always know it by watching television, but overall, most cities are much safer than they were 10 years ago or 20 years ago.
Now, I challenge the notion that the reason for that is because there’s more gun ownership, because if you look at where are the areas with the highest gun ownership, those are the places in some cases where the crime rate hasn’t dropped down that much. And the places where there’s pretty stiff restrictions on gun ownership, in some of those places, the crime has dropped really quickly. So I’m not sure that there’s a one-to-one correlation there.
But I think the most important point I want to make is that you will be able to purchase a firearm. Some criminals will get their hands on firearms even if there’s a background check. Somebody may lie on a form. Somebody will intend to commit a crime, but they don’t have a record that shows up on the background check system.
But, in the same way that we don’t eliminate all traffic accidents, but, over the course of 20 years, traffic accidents get lower – there’s still tragedies. There’s still drunk drivers. There’s still people who don’t wear their seat belts, but over time, that violence was reduced, and so families are spared.
That’s the same thing that we can do with gun ownership. There is a way for us to set up a system where you, a responsible gun owner who – I’m assuming, given your husband and your family, is a much better marksman than I am – can have a firearm to protect yourself, but where it is much harder for somebody to fill up a car with guns and sell them to 13-year-old kids on the streets.
And – and that is, I think, what we’re trying to do. What we’re also trying to do is make the database more effective, so that’s part of the proposal – which, by the way, will convenience you when you go to the store, because if we can set up a 24/7 background check system, then that means that it’s less likely that things slip through the cracks or it’s more difficult for you to – to get your background check completed.
And we’re also trying to close a loophole that has been developing over the last decade, where now, people are using cut-out trusts and shell corporations to purchase the most dangerous weapons – sawed-off shotguns, automatic weapons, silencers – and don’t have to go through background checks at all.
And we don’t know whether – are these sales going to, you know, drug traffickers? Are they – we don’t know who’s purchasing them right now. And so what we’re saying is, you know what? That is something that we got to do something about.
The same thing is true with Internet sales, where one study has shown that 1 out of 30 persons who are purchasing weapons over the Internet turn out to have a felony record, and that’s not something you want to see.
COOPER: I think one question a lot of people have about you is, do you believe the fundamental notion that a good guy with a gun, or a good woman with a gun is an important bulwark against a bad person with a gun?
And before you answer, I want you to meet Kimberly Corban. Kimberly was a college student in Colorado in 2006. Kimberly’s right over there. She was raped by a man who broke into her apartment.
She testified for three hours in the trial against him. Her attacker was sentenced to 24 years to life in prison, and I know that attack, Kimberly, changed your view of handguns. What’s your question for the president?
As a survivor of rape, and now a mother to two small children – you know, it seems like being able to purchase a firearm of my choosing, and being able to carry that wherever my – me and my family are – it seems like my basic responsibility as a parent at this point.
I have been unspeakably victimized once already, and I refuse to let that happen again to myself or my kids. So 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 where I need to be is actually just making my kids and I less safe?
OBAMA: Well, Kimberly, first of all, obviously – you know, your story is horrific. The strength you’ve shown in telling your story and, you know, being here tonight is remarkable, and so – really proud of you for that.
I – I just want to repeat that there’s nothing that we’ve proposed that would make it harder for you to purchase a firearm. And – now, you may be referring to issues like concealed carry, but those tend to be state-by-state decisions, and we’re not making any proposals with respect to what states are doing. They can make their own decisions there.
So there really is no – nothing we’re proposing that prevents you or makes it harder for you to purchase a firearm if you need one. There are always questions as to whether or not having a firearm in the home protects you from that kind of violence, and I’m not sure we can resolve that. People argue it both sides.
What is true is, is that you have to be pretty well trained in order to fire a weapon against somebody who is assaulting you and catches you by surprise.
And what is also true is there’s always the possibility that that firearm in a home leads to a tragic accident. You know, we can debate that round or flat.
But for now, what I just want to focus on is that you 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 system in place – background check system in place.
And so, you know, if you look at the statistics, there’s no doubt that there are times where somebody who has a weapon has been able to protect themselves and scare off an intruder or an assailant, but what is more often the case is that they may not have been able to protect themselves, but they end up being the victim of the weapon that they purchased themselves. And that is – that’s something that can be debated.