Townhall on Guns with President Obama. Aired 8-9:12p ET - Part 2

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[20:30:08] If now that person has to go through a background check and register, ATF now has the capacity to find out if, and when a gun is used in a crime in Chicago where that gun comes from.

And, now you know, here's somebody who seems to be willing to sell a gun to a 15 year old who had a known record.

COOPER: But you're only going to be asking people to get a license, and do background checks if they give out business cards, if they're selling weapons in the original packaging. Somebody just walking around a gun show selling a weapon, not necessarily going to have to register.

OBAMA: No -- look, there's going to be a case by case evaluation. Are they on an ongoing basis making a profit, and are they repeatedly selling firearms.

COOPER: OK, I want you to meet Sheriff Paul Babeu, of Pinal County, Arizona. He's a Republican running for Congress after the recent terror attacks. Sherif, I know you've been telling citizens to arm themselves to protect their families...

QUESTION: ... yes...

COOPER: ... sheriff, what's your question to the President?

QUESTION: Well, first, deputies and a slow response time has been mentioned a couple of times, and I want to be clear about -- my deputies have a very fast emergency response time...

(LAUGHING)

OBAMA: I'm sure that's true.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you've said you've be thwarted by -- frustrated by Congress. As a Sheriff, I often times get frustrated, but I don't make the laws, and I've sworn an oath to enforce the law, to uphold the Constitution, same oath you've taken. And, the talk, you know, why we're here, is all these mass shootings, and, yet you've said in your executive action it wouldn't have solved even one of these, or...

OBAMA: ... oh, I didn't say that...

QUESTION: ... well...

OBAMA: ... I didn't say that it wouldn't solve one...

QUESTION: ... Wwll -- we've) got the information, what would it have solved...

COOPER: None of the recent mass shootings, I should point out, none of the guns were purchased from an unlicensed dealer.

QUESTION: Correct. And, that's what I'm speaking to -- the executive action that you mentioned. Earlier, you mentioned Aspirin, toys, or cars -- they're not written about in the Constitution. I want to know, and I think all of us really want to get to the solution -- and you said don't talk past each other -- what would you have done to prevent these mass shootings and the terrorist attack.

And, how do we get those with mental illness, and criminals, that's the real problem here, how are we going to get them to follow the laws?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I appreciate your service, good luck on your race. You sure you want to Congress?

(LAUGHING)

QUESTION: I don't want to (inaudible)...

OBAMA: I'm sure that's true!

(LAUGHING)

OBAMA: That'll hurt you, and I'm sure it's a Republican district.

Look, crime is always going to be with us. So, I think it's really important for us not to suggest that if we can't solve every crime, we shouldn't try to solve any crimes.

(APPLAUSE)

And -- the problem, when we talk about that guns don't kill people, people kill people, it's primarily a mental health problem, or it's a criminal and evil problem, and that's what we have to get at. All of us are interested in fighting crime, I'm very proud of the fact that violent crime rates have continued to go down during the course of my presidency.

I've got an attorney general, an FBI that works very closely with local law enforcement in busting up crime rings all the time, that's a huge priority to us. And, we're probably providing grants to your department to help go after criminals. The challenge we have is that in many instances you don't know ahead of time who's going to be the criminal. It's not -- it's not as if criminals walk around with a label saying, "I'm a criminal." And, by the way, the young man who killed those kids in New Town, he didn't have a criminal record, and so, we didn't know ahead of time, necessarily, that he was going to do something like that.

But, he was able to have access to an arsenal that allowed him in very short order to kill an entire classroom of small children. And, so, the question then becomes, are there ways for us, since we can't identify that person all the time, are there ways for us to make it less lethal when something like that happens.

And, I mentioned this during my speech at the White House a couple of days ago. Right around the time of New Town, in China, a guy was obviously similarly deranged, had a knife and started attacking a bunch of school children. About the same number were cut or stabbed by this guy, but most of them survived. And the reason was because he wasn't yielding (sic) a semiautomatic.

So -- so the -- the main point, I think, that I want to make here is that everybody here is in favor of going after criminals, locking them up, making sure that we're creating an environment where kids don't turn into criminals and providing the -- the support that they need.

Those are all important things. Nobody's -- nobody's saying we need to be going soft on criminals. What we do have to make sure of is that we don't make it so easy for them to have access to deadly weapons.

In neighborhoods like Chicago -- but I'm -- I keep on using Chicago. This is all across the country. You go into any neighborhood. It used to be that parents would see some kids messing around on the corner, and they'd say, "yo," even if they weren't the parent of those children, "go back inside. Stop doing that."

And over time, it was a lot harder to discipline somebody else's kid and have the community maintain order, or talk to police officers if somebody's doing something wrong, because now somebody is worried about getting shot.

And if we can create an environment that's just a little bit safer for -- in those communities, that will help. And if it doesn't infringe on your Second Amendment rights, and it doesn't infringe on your Second Amendment rights, and you're still able to get a firearm for your protection, why wouldn't we want to do that?

COOPER: We've got to take a break.

(APPLAUSE)

We're going to take a quick break. Our live town hall conversation, Guns in America, with President Barack Obama, continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And welcome back. We're live at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, continuing our 360 town hall conversation with President Barack Obama, Guns in America. Talking to voices from all sides of the issue, including the president.

[20:40:07] You made your announcement just the other day in a very obviously emotional ceremony at the White House. I want to play just a moment from it for those who haven't seen it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: And from first graders in Newtown -- first graders, and from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun.

Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: I think a lot of people were surprised by that moment.

OBAMA: I was, too, actually. You know, I visited Newtown two days after what happened, so it was still very raw. It's the only time I've ever seen Secret Service cry on duty. And it wasn't just the parents. You had siblings, you know -- 10-year-olds, eight-year-olds, three-year-olds who in some cases didn't even understand that their brother or sister weren't going to be coming home.

And I've said this before. It -- it continues to haunt me. It was one of the worst days of my presidency. But -- but look, I want to emphasize that there are a lot of tragedies that happen out there as a consequence of the victims of crime. There are police officers who are out there laying down their lives to protect us every single day.

You know, and -- and tears are appropriate for them as well, and I visit with those families as well -- victims of terrorism, soldiers coming home. You know, there's a lot of heartache out there. And I don't suggest that this is the only kind of heartache we should be working on. You know, I spend a lot of time and a lot of hours, in fact a lot more hours than I spend on this, trying to prevent terrorist attacks.

I spend a lot of time and a lot of hours trying to make sure that we're continuing to reduce our crime rate. There are a whole bunch of other answers that are just as important when it comes to making sure that the streets of places like Chicago and Baltimore are safer; making sure kids get a good early childhood education; making sure that we're teaching conflict resolution that doesn't involve violence; making sure that, you know, faith communities are able to reach out to young people and intervene in timely ways.

So, this is not a recipe for solving every problem. Again, I just want to emphasize that the goal here is just to make progress. And I -- it's interesting. As I -- as I enter into my last year as -- as president, I could not be prouder of the work that we've done, but it also makes you really humble because you realize that change takes a long time, and a lot of the work you do is just to incrementally make things better so that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, the crime rate has gone down. That's not just because of my administration. That's -- the groundwork was laid by a bunch of good work by law enforcement and others for years, across administrations on a bipartisan basis. The same is true with traffic safety. The same is true with advances in medicine. The same can be true with this if we stop exaggerating or mischaracterizing the positions of either side, and we just come up with some sensible areas that people agree with.

Background checks are an example. The majority of gun owners agree with this.

COOPER: You talked about faith communities.

[20:45:00] Father Michael Pfleger is here. I know you know him well. He's a Roman Catholic priest in Chicago. For those who don't know, his Church of St. Sabina on the south side of Chicago. I was there about a month ago. It was a great honor to be there.

Father, you've given a lot of eulogies for a lot of kids in your community; far too many over the 40 years that you have been there. What's your question for the president?

QUESTION: Mr. President, first of all, thank you for your courage and your passion, and keep pushing. I happen to be from one of those cities where violence is not going down. Not only did Anderson mention the 55 shot, there's been 11 killed in seven days in Chicago.

And one of the main reasons for that is the easy access to guns. It's easier to get a gun in my neighborhood than it is a computer. And the reality is, is because many of those guns have been bought legally.

And I understand why people are pushing against you, because I understand it's a business and it's about a business. And so if we cut back the easy access to guns, less money for the gun manufacturers, less money for the gun lobby, I understand the business of it. But that business is causing blood and the kids that are dying in Chicago. And for many years, nobody even cared about Chicago because the violence is primarily black and brown.

The reality is that I don't understand why we can't title guns just like cars. If I have a car and I give it to you, Mr. President, and I don't transfer a title, and you're in an accident, it's on me. We don't take cars away by putting titles on them. Why can't we do that with guns? And every gun in America -- so if somebody who's buying 200 guns, selling them on the streets, if they can't transfer those titles, then they're going to be held responsible for the guns that they sell.

OBAMA: Well, Father Mike, first of all, for those of you who don't know him, has been working since I -- since before I had moved to Chicago and I was a 23-year-old when I first met him. And somehow I aged, and he didn't.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Your gray hair is not going back, I can tell you from experience.

OBAMA: He was always the best-looking priest in Chicago, so -- but Father Pfleger has done heroic work at St. Sabina Parish. Issues like licensing, registration, that's an area where there's just not enough national consensus at this stage to even consider it. And part of it is, is people's concern that that becomes a prelude to taking people's guns away.

I mean, part of the challenge in this is that the gun debate gets wrapped up in broader debates about whether the federal government is oppressive and, you know, there are conspiracy theories floating around the Internet these days all the time. We did a military exercise in Texas, and a whole bunch of folks were sure that this was the start of martial law and were suggesting maybe don't cooperate with the United States Army in an effort to prepare so that if they get deployed overseas, they can handle it. But that's how difficult sometimes these debates are.

But there are -- but I want to pick up on some things where I think there should be consensus. One of those areas that I talked about at the speech, part of the proposal is developing smart gun technology.

Now, this is an interesting example. I don't exactly understand this, and maybe there will be somebody in the audience who explains it to me. Back in 1997, the CEO of Colt said, you know, we can design or are starting to develop guns where you can only use it if you've got a chip. You know, you wear a band or a bracelet, and that then protects your 2-year-old or 3-year-old from picking up the gun and using it. And a boycott was called against them, and -- and they had to back off of developing that technology.

The same with Smith and Wessen. They were in the process of developing similar technology, and they were attacked by the NRA as surrendering.

Now, to me, this does not make sense. If you are a gun-owner, I would think that you would at least want a choice so that if you wanted to purchase a firearm that could only be used by you, in part to avoid accidents in your home, in part to make sure that if it's stolen, it's not used by a criminal, in part if there's an intruder, you pull the gun, but you -- somehow it gets wrested away from you, that gun can't be turned on you and used on you, I would think there might be a market for that. You could sell that gun.

[20:50:00] Now, I'm not saying that necessarily would be the only gun that's available, but it seems to me that that would be something that, in any other area, in any other product, any other commercial venture, there'd be some research and development on that, because that's a promising technology.

COOPER: Can I -- I want to...

OBAMA: It -- it hasn't -- it has not been developed, primarily because it's been blocked by either the NRA, which is -- are funded by gun manufacturers, or other reasons. In part, what we proposed was, you know what? We're gonna do some of the research. We'll work with the private sector. We'll figure out whether or not this technology can be developed...

(APPLAUSE)

... and then give everybody a choice in terms of the kind of firearm that they want to purchase, because I think that there will in fact be a market for that. And over time, that's an example of how we could reduce some of the preventable gun deaths out there.

COOPER: I want to bring somebody who actually knows a lot about selling guns. Why don't you meet Kris Jacob, he's vice president of the American Firearms Retailers Association, he's the owner of the Bullseye indoor shooting range and gun store in San Rafael, California.

Kris, it's great to have you here. First of all, how is business under President Obama? Because everything I read says...

QUESTION: Great.

COOPER: ... gun sales have been going up. Every time he talks about guns, gun sales go up.

QUESTION: It's been busy, and -- and certainly, I think that shows, as Taya (ph) said earlier, that there's a very serious concern in this country about personal security. And the sheriff is right -- they do everything they possibly can to make sure they get there as quickly as they possibly can.

And -- and my question is actually focused around law enforcement, as well. There are 53,000 licensed gun dealers in the United States who stand behind the counter and say "no" to people all day.

OBAMA: Yep.

JACOB: We feel it's our responsibility to make sure that people who have a criminal past, people who are mentally ill or are having a bad day don't get possession of firearms. So we assist law enforcement all the time in the process of making sure that those things don't change hands inside our commercial market...

OBAMA: Right.

JACOB: ... if they shouldn't. It's a very serious responsibility for us, and as a group, we take it very seriously.

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.

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? I mean, the problem seems to me -- to be -- you mentioned dealers who are less responsible than others, and certainly, it's possible that those folks are out there.

But if we can enforce the laws that already exist, the tens of thousands of gun laws that are on the books right now, it might create a very significant deterrent...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... getting those people in the stores (ph).

COOPER: Let me also point out -- the number of ATF agents, during your administration, has actually declined. So even if you hired...

OBAMA: Yes. Not -- not -- not because of my budget.

COOPER: ... 200 more -- but even if you hired 200 more, you'll get it to what it was right before you took office.

OBAMA: Absolutely. Well, look. First of all, there are a whole bunch of responsible gun dealers out there, and my hope would be that those gun dealers would support making sure that everybody is following the same rules that they are. That's number one.

Number two is we're not writing a new law. Only Congress can do that. This is about enforcing existing laws, and closing what has grown into a massive loophole where a huge percentage of -- of guns, many of whom end up being traced to crime, are not going through the responsible gun dealers, but are going through irresponsible folks, who are not registered as doing business.

And the whole goal here is to clarify, and to put on notice that, if you're a business, even if you don't have bricks and mortar, then you're supposed to register and you're supposed to conduct background checks.

So the -- the issue is not where you do it, it's what you're doing, and that should not be something that threatens responsible gun dealers across the country.

In terms of the ATF, it is absolutely true that the ATF budget has been shrank, because -- has be -- been shrunk. That's a little late, but, you know, you knew what I meant.

(LAUGHTER)

And -- and part of it is because the -- the politicizing of this issue. So, many in the Republican Congress feel as if the ATF is not their friend, but their enemy. Part of -- part of the -- the story I was telling...

[20:55:02] COOPER: You said this issue should be politicized, though.

OBAMA: Well, but what I mean by that, Anderson, is, is that they have been portrayed as trying to take people's guns away, as opposed to

OBAMA: ... part of this story.... COOPER: ... the sentence (ph) shouldn't be politicized though.

OBAMA: Well, what I mean by that, Anderson, is that they have been portrayed as trying to take people's guns away, as opposed to trying to make sure that the laws are enforced. And, one of the most frustrating things that I hear is when people say -- who are opposed to any further laws, why don't you just enforce the laws that are on the books, and those very same members of Congress then cut a ATF budgets to make it impossible to enforce the law.

(APPLAUSE)

... and, so, it is -- and, by the way, the ATF a law enforcement agency working under the FBI that is doing enormous work in going after criminals, and drug cartels, and have a pretty dangerous job, so, it's not as if doing background checks, or auditing gun sales is all that they're doing. Part of my proposal is also developing better technologies so that we can do tracing of shells when a crime is committed in order to figure out who exactly are the perpetrators of the crime, and where exactly they obtained the weapon.

So, there's a whole bunch of other elements to this that are going to be important.

But, my hope is that responsible gun dealers like yourself, and your organization are going to be supportive of this proposal because it should actually help push away unscrupulous dealers. That means more customers for you guys.

COOPER: I want to bring in Mark Kelly, as you know, former astronaut, husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who we're proud to say is here tonight. Five years ago this week, in Tucson, Arizona, Congresswoman Giffords was shot, six others were killed. Captain, your question?

QUESTION: Thank you for being here, Mr. President. As you know, Gabby and I are both gun owners, we take gun ownership very seriously. And, you know, really think about the voices of responsible gun owners in this debate.

But, I want to follow up to something Father Pfleger said, and you answer to his question. And, it's about expanded background checks. Often what you hear in the debate of expanding background checks to more gun sales, and, as you know, Gabby and I are 100% behind the concept of somebody getting a background check before buying a gun.

But, when we testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, we heard not only from the gun lobby, but from United States Senators that expanding background checks will, not may, will lead to a registry, which will lead to confiscation, which will lead to a tyrannical government.

So, I would like you to explain with 350 million guns in 65 million places, 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? (APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Well, look, first of all, everytime I see Gabby I'm just so thrilled because I visited her in the hospital, and, as I mentioned, I think, in the speech in the White House, as we left the hospital then to go to a memorial service, we got word that Gabby had opened her eyes for the first time.

And, we did not think she was going to be here, and she is, and Mark's just been extraordinary.

And, by the way, Mark's twin brothers up in space right now, and is breaking the record for the longest continuous orbiting of the planet, which is pretty impressive stuff.

What I think Mark is alluding to is what I said earlier, 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...

COOPER: ... now, let me just jump in here, is it fair to call it a conspiracy...

OBAMA: ... well, yeah...

COOPER: ... because a lot of people really believe this deeply, that they just don't...

OBAMA: ... no...

COOPER: ... they just don't trust you.

OBAMA: I'm sorry, Cooper, yes. It is fair to call the conspiracy, what are you saying? 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...

COOPER: ... not everybody, but there's certainly a lot of...

OBAMA: ... but a conspiracy? Yes, that is a conspiracy! I would hope that would agree with that.

(APPLAUSE)

[21:00:03] OBAMA: Is that controversial? Except on some website...

COOPER: There are -- there are certainly a lot of people who just have a fundamental distrust that you do not want to get -- go further and further and further down this road.

OBAMA: Well, look, I mean, I'm only going to be here for another year. I don't know -- when -- when would I have started on this enterprise, right? I come from the state of Illinois, which we've been talking about Chicago, but downstate Illinois is closer to Kentucky than it is to Chicago. And everybody hunts down there. And a lot of folks own guns. And so this is not, like, alien territory to me. I've got a lot of friends, like Mark, who are hunters. I just came back from Alaska where I ate a moose that had just been shot, and it was pretty good.

So, yes, it is -- it is a false notion that I believe is circulated for either political reasons or commercial reasons in order to prevent a coming-together among people of goodwill to develop commonsense rules that will make us safer while preserving the Second Amendment.

And the notion that we can't agree on some things while not agreeing on others, and the reason for that is because, "Well, the president secretly wants to do X," would mean that we'd be paralyzed about doing everything. I mean, maybe when I propose to make sure that, you know, unsafe drugs are taken off the market that secretly I'm trying to control the entire drug industry or take people's drugs away, but probably not. What's more likely is I just want to make sure that people are not dying by taking bad drugs.

COOPER: You wrote an op-ed that just got published.

OBAMA: Yes.

COOPER: A lot of people probably have not read it yet. One of the things you say in it is that you are not going to campaign for, vote for any candidate, regardless of what party they are in, if they do not support commonsense gun reform.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Yes. I meant what I said. And the reason -- the reason I said that is this. The majority of people in this country are a lot more sensible than what you see in Washington. And the reason that Washington doesn't work well in part is because the loudest, shrillest voices, the least compromising, the most powerful, or those with the most money have the most influence.

And the way Washington changes is when people vote. And the way we break the deadlock on this issue is when Congress does not have just a stranglehold on this debate -- or, excuse me, the NRA does not have a stranglehold on Congress in this debate...

(APPLAUSE)

... but it is balanced by a whole bunch of folks, gun-owners, law enforcement, the majority of the American people, when their voices are heard, then things get done.

The proposals that we've put forward are a version -- a lawful, more narrow version of what was proposed by Joe Manchin and Senator Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican and a Democrat, both of whom get straight A scores from the NRA. And somehow after Newtown that did not pass the Senate. The majority of senators wanted it, but 90 percent of Republicans voted against it. And I'll be honest with you. Ninety percent of those senators didn't disagree with the proposal, but they were fearful that it was going to affect them during the election.

So all I'm saying is, is that this debate will not change and get balanced out so that lawful gun-owners and their Second Amendment rights are protected, but we're also creating a pathway towards a safer set of communities, it's not going to change until those who are concerned about violence are not as focused and disciplined during election time as those who are.

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