“It’s a great advertising mechanism, but it’s not necessary,” he added.

Gun control has become a key issue in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, with Obama writing in a New York Times oped yesterday (Jan. 7) that he will not support any candidate “who does not support common sense gun reform.” On Jan. 5, he announced executive action to tighten gun ownership restrictions.

Republican presidential candidates have called Obama’s orders “unconstitutional” and vowed to reverse them. And while Obama was defending his stance at the town hall, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, at a rally in Vermont, called for gun-free zones to be banned.

Obama fielded questions at last night’s event about his recent executive actions on gun control from journalist Anderson Cooper and members of the audience, which included gun rights advocates and victims of gun violence. The president repeatedly characterized the executive orders, which call for an overhauled background check system and 200 new federal agents dedicated to enforcing existing firearms regulations, as incremental measures that won’t affect most lawful gun owners in the US.

Obama also admitted that the new regulations probably won’t prevent very many gun-related deaths. But, he added, even if the new background check system only brought the estimated 30,000 deaths caused by firearms each year down to 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.”

The president lamented the rhetorical strategy employed by the NRA, which he says has put lawmakers in a “stranglehold” with regards to the national gun debate:

…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.

Later in the event, former congresswoman Giffords, who was nearly killed in a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011, stood up with her husband, Mark Kelly, to ask about the fear that expanded background checks might lead to a “tyrannical government”:

…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?

Cooper encouraged Obama to take that question seriously, though the president argued that Giffords and Kelly were referring to “a conspiracy.”

“Is it fair to call it a conspiracy?” Cooper interjected. “Because a lot of people really believe this deeply. They just don’t trust you.”

“I’m sorry, Cooper, yes. It is fair to call it a conspiracy,” Obama replied, visibly exasperated. “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 is not a conspiracy? Yes, that is a conspiracy!”

“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,” Obama went on to say.

During a roundtable discussion with CNN’s Jake Tapper following the event, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt slammed Obama for the “conspiracy” comments. “It’s not a conspiracy to worry about this President’s abuse of power,” Hewitt said, complaining that the president had made a mockery out of legitimate concerns. “It is not a conspiracy to be concerned about where he is going and to mock, minimize and to denigrate the people whom you ought to be serving is deeply disappointing.”

Accusing opponents of crafting conspiracy theories rarely goes well for politicians. Hillary Clinton did it in 1998, when she referred to a “vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.” That infamous comment, which has been repeated by Clinton, was dismissed by her critics as “paranoid.”

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