Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Pushing for gun controls, Obama tears into the NRA

President vows to refuse to support or campaign for anyone who ‘does not support common-sense gun reform’

President Barack Obama tore into the National Rifle Association on Thursday night as he sought support for his actions on gun control, accusing the powerful lobby group of peddling an “imaginary fiction” that he said has distorted the national debate about gun violence.

In a prime-time, televised town hall meeting, Obama defended his support for the constitutional right to gun ownership while arguing it was consistent with his efforts to curb violence and mass shootings. 

A series of mass shootings has punctuated Obama's time in office, and after he failed to convince Congress to toughen up gun laws, the president said he wanted to have a national debate about guns in his final year in office and his appearance on Thursday came days after came two days after he unveiled a package of executive actions aimed at keeping guns from people who shouldn't have them.

Obama has blamed Congress for being beholden to the NRA.

Obama dismissed what he called a “conspiracy” alleging that the federal government — and Obama in particular —wants to seize all firearms as a precursor to imposing martial law. He blamed that notion on the NRA and like-minded groups that convince its members that “somebody's going to come grab your guns.”

He said the NRA was refusing to acknowledge the government's responsibility to make legal products safer, citing seatbelts and child-proof medicine bottles as examples.

Ahead of the town hall, Obama put political candidates on notice that he would refuse to support or campaign for anyone who “does not support common-sense gun reform” — including Democrats. “All of us need to demand leaders brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies,” Obama wrote in a New York Times op-ed that was published on Thursday.

All the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination support stricter gun laws, in contrast to GOP hopefuls, so Obama's declaration isn't likely to have an impact on the race to replace him. Instead, it appeared aimed at Democratic congressional candidates from competitive districts who might want Obama's support on the campaign trail this year.

At the town hall, which was organized and hosted by CNN, Obama said he has always been willing to meet with the NRA to discuss gun policies and said the NRA was invited to the town hall but declined to participate.

The American Firearms Retailers Association, another lobby group that represents gun dealers, did participate.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said ahead of the event that the group saw “no reason to participate in a public relations spectacle orchestrated by the White House.” Still, the group pushed back on Obama in real time with a stream of posts on Twitter. “It's true: None of the president's orders would have stopped any of the recent mass shootings,” the group wrote.

Several gun owners peppered Obama with arguments against his gun rule proposals. Kimberly Corban, a survivor of a sexual assault who said she carried a gun to protect herself and her two young children, told Obama that she felt his changes infringed on her rights.

"I have been unspeakably victimized once already, and I refuse to let that happen again to myself or my kids," Corban said.

Obama told Corban his proposals would not make it harder for law-abiding people like her to buy a gun, but could stop some criminals. "You certainly would like to make it a little harder for that assailant to have also had a gun," he said.

Last year, following a series of mass shootings, Obama pledged to "politicize" the issue in an attempt to level the playing field for gun control supporters.

The centerpiece of Obama's plan released two days ago is new federal guidance that seeks to clarify who is "in the business" of selling firearms, triggering a requirement to get a license and conduct background checks on all prospective buyers.

The plan has drawn intense criticism from gun rights groups that have accused the president of trampling on the Second Amendment and railroading Congress by taking action on his own without new laws.

He has repeatedly urged Congress to tighten gun laws, to no avail. His calls grew louder following the 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and again after mass shootings in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and San Bernardino, California in recent months.

Obama has often said his toughest time in office was grappling with the deaths of 20 children and six adults in Newtown.

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