WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama delivered a plea for stricter gun laws during an hourlong televised town-hall-style event Thursday night, demanding a national response to what he called an epidemic of gun violence in the country.
Two days after breaking down in tears while announcing executive actions on guns, Obama continued what aides said would be a campaign on an issue that has vexed him since he won the presidency — and with it, the grim task of consoling the victims of mass shootings.
With help from Congress to mandate a more efficient universal background check system, Obama said, "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."
Moderated by Anderson Cooper of CNN, the live question-and-answer session, with about 100 people in the audience, was billed by the network as a forum for advocates and opponents of gun rights. The session was held at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., a suburb of Washington.
In his opening remarks, Obama urged firearm owners, hunters and gun rights activists to join him in support of tougher laws that would target criminals while preserving Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens.
Doing otherwise, the president said, would condemn the United States to continue suffering through mass shootings, suicides, gang violence, domestic abuse and accidental shootings that have killed tens of thousands of Americans.
"I respect the Second Amendment; I respect the right to bear arms," Obama said. "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 do other people harm."
Obama tore into the National Rifle Association at the event, accusing the powerful lobby group of peddling an "imaginary fiction" that he said has distorted the national debate about gun violence.
Obama dismissed what he called a "conspiracy" alleging that the federal government 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."
"Yes, that is a conspiracy," Obama said. "I'm only going to be here for another year. When would I have started on this enterprise?"
"If you listen to the rhetoric, it is so over the top, and so overheated," Obama said, describing it as a ploy to drive up gun sales.
Obama said he's always been willing to meet with the NRA — if they're willing to address the facts. He said the NRA was invited to the town hall but declined to participate. Several NRA members were in the audience.
"There's a reason why the NRA's not here. They're just down the street," Obama said, referring to the group's nearby headquarters. "Since this is a main reason they exist, you'd think that they'd be prepared to have a debate with the president."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.