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During Town Hall, Obama Takes Aim at NRA


President Barack Obama watches the replay of his emotional speech from earlier this week during a CNN televised town hall meeting at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016.

President Barack Obama watches the replay of his emotional speech from earlier this week during a CNN televised town hall meeting at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016.

Days after announcing new executive actions meant to reduce gun violence, President Barack Obama made his pitch to the public Thursday at a town hall style meeting, where he lashed out at the nation's largest gun rights group.

During the hour-long forum hosted by CNN, Obama accused the powerful National Rifle Association of having a "stranglehold on Congress" and said it is opportunistically perpetrating the "conspiracy" that the federal government is trying to "take away your guns."

"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," Obama said.

The forum was held at George Mason University, less than five kilometers from the NRA's national headquarters in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. The group declined an invitation to participate in the event.

"There is a reason why the NRA is not here," said Obama. "They are just down the street. And since this is the main reason they exist, you'd think they would be prepared to have a debate with the president."

President Barack Obama, left, speaks during a CNN televised town-hall meeting hosted by Anderson Cooper, right, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Jan. 7, 2016.

President Barack Obama, left, speaks during a CNN televised town-hall meeting hosted by Anderson Cooper, right, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Jan. 7, 2016.

NRA slams 'PR stunt'

Instead, the NRA reacted to the president's comments via Twitter. "[Obama] doesn’t want an intellectually honest policy discussion," said an NRA tweet. "He wanted #NRA to be an audience member at his PR stunt. No thanks."

The NRA is opposed to many of the executive actions rolled out by Obama earlier this week. The new measures require, among other things, more gun sellers to get licenses and more gun buyers to undergo background checks.

Watch video report from Mary Alice Salinas:

Obama, who took questions from audience members who both supported and opposed stronger gun control measures, defended the new restrictions, saying they were meant to make it harder for criminals to acquire weapons.

"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," Obama said.

"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," he added.

Final push

With only one year remaining until the end of his presidency, the moves represent a final push by Obama on an issue where he has repeatedly failed to make progress. Republican lawmakers rejected Obama's earlier attempts to tighten gun regulations.

The president is signaling to the American public that he is "no longer willing to wait" to pass gun reforms, according to Chelsea Parsons who focuses on guns and crime policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

"He is going to use all his existing current authority, as well as his position and his bully pulpit, to continue to put pressure on our elected leaders to take action on this really important issue," Parsons said in an interview with VOA.

President Barack Obama, left, speaks during a CNN televised town hall meeting hosted by Anderson Cooper, right, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Jan. 7, 2016.

President Barack Obama, left, speaks during a CNN televised town hall meeting hosted by Anderson Cooper, right, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Jan. 7, 2016.

Measures 'not controversial'

Despite the fierce reaction to Obama's new measures, many conservative analysts, including even some NRA officials, have acknowledged that the new rules are weaker than expected.

"A number of things the president has proposed are not controversial," conceded John Malcolm, an expert on crime and constitutional law at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Malcolm said many gun rights advocates would have no problem supporting measures such as an increase in the number of ATF agents to enforce existing gun laws or improvements in the national instant background check system.

"The more problematic areas are if the president tries to extend existing laws beyond the breaking point, to get them to apply to average citizens who are law-abiding, who are not engaged in illegal arms transactions," he said.

Obama issues ultimatum

The White House said the president plans to keep the debate alive and will push for voters to counter the pro-gun lobby in Washington.

In an opinion column published Thursday in The New York Times, Obama said he would refuse to support any candidate, even a fellow Democrat, if he or she does not support tighter gun laws.

"Even as I continue to take every action possible as president, I will also take every action I can as a citizen," Obama said in the piece.

"I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform," he added.

VOA White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas and reporter Elizabeth Cherneff contributed to this report.

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