The National Rifle Association declined an invitation to participate in Thursday's CNN-hosted "town hall" on guns, which featured President Barack Obama answering questions about his recent executive actions on gun control. But thanks to CNN's commitment to unashamedly driving right at the heart of America's paranoid political style, the gun manufacturers' lobby was there in spirit, courtesy of moderator Anderson Cooper -- who seized on a moment of relative calm to get wacky and wild-eyed.
The action began when Mark Kelly, the husband of former Arizona congresswoman and gun violence survivor Gabrielle Giffords, talked about the reaction to testimony he gave to Congress supporting the expansion of background checks. Kelly, himself a gun owner, said he was frustrated to find that many legislators were of the belief that this expansion was a ruse that would lead to a gun confiscation registry. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Kelly asked, "I'd like you to explain, with 350 million guns in 65 million places, households from Key West to Alaska ... if the federal government wanted to confiscate those objects, how would they do that?"
Obama endeavored to explain how it came to pass that the lawmakers Kelly encountered had come to believe what they believed, when Cooper suddenly came to the aid of the conspiracy-mongers.
BARACK OBAMA: This notion of a conspiracy out there, it gets wrapped up in concerns about the federal government. Now, there's a long history of that. That's in our DNA. The United States was born suspicious of some distant authority --
ANDERSON COOPER: Let me jump in. Is it fair to call it a conspiracy? A lot of people really believe this deeply, they just don't trust you.
OBAMA: I'm sorry, Cooper? Yes. It is fair to call it a conspiracy. What are you saying?
Lots of people deeply believe President George W. Bush "pulled" Tower Seven, too. Will there be time to discuss this at this town hall, or will we mainly be focusing on the mind control applications of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program?
Despite losing the audience at this point, Cooper wouldn't let go.
OBAMA: Are you suggesting the notion that we are creating a plot to take everybody's guns away so that we can impose martial law --
COOPER: But there is certainly --
OBAMA: It's a conspiracy, it is a conspiracy. I would hope you would agree with that. Is that controversial?
Speaking only for myself, watching Obama get repeatedly accused of wanting to take people's guns away makes me sort of wish he'd just do something to earn that accusation. May as well! But it's worth remembering what Obama's executive orders will actually do.
The broadest strokes of what the president proposes would basically spur various government agencies to the task of enforcing current law, and tightening the guidance on those laws to close various loopholes. The most significant -- and most controversial -- part of Obama's orders would more tightly define which for-profit gun sellers are required to participate in the background check program. Another significant order would hasten the finalizing of a Department of Health and Human Services rule that would enable states to provide mental health records to the background check system.
In addition, Obama's executive orders would provide funding for additional personnel to run background checks, tighten the rules for reporting lost or stolen firearms, and provide some measure of incentive to develop technologically innovative "smart" weapons. (Obviously, there's only so much a president can do about the low demand for such weapons, however.)
Obama's executive actions would include a new restriction on buyers who purchase weapons through legal entities or trusts, requiring that these buyers be subject to a background check.
And that's pretty much the extent to which any of these executive orders impact purchasers -- unless, of course, if they are the sort of purchasers who would normally fail a background check. And none of these orders do anything that even resembles taking a gun away from a lawful owner, or even banning a particular weapon from being sold. These executive actions do little more than nudge various sellers who currently operate outside the background check system back toward that system.
Eventually, Cooper's weird line of questioning affords Obama the opportunity to point out that he's had a long time to put this supposed "grab everyone's guns" plan into effect and has thus far failed to demonstrate any desire to do so.
COOPER: There are certainly a lot of people that have a fundamental distrust that you do not want to go further and further and further down this road.
OBAMA: Look, I mean ... I'm only going to be here for another year. I don't know, 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 [Kelly], who are hunters. I just came back from Alaska, where I ate a moose that had just been shot, and it was pretty good.
Well, at least we solved the mystery of that missing moose.