On Thursday night, CNN enlisted Anderson Cooper to host a town hall with President Obama on “Guns in America” in an attempt to cut through the noise with an hour-or-so of civil discourse on the role of guns in the country. Cooper stressed at the outset that the idea for the forum was CNN’s and the National Rifle Association had also been asked to join, but declined. The organization’s presence was still felt.
The billing of “Guns in America” was ultimately too broad a label for the discussion that ensued. The President of the United States, author of a handful executive orders this week aimed at cinching gun sale loopholes, made the straightforward point that increasing accountability via background checks makes common sense. The logic for gun control is linear, the forces against it, unfortunately, are not.
Obama went no further. “We put out a proposal that is common sense, modest, does not claim to solve every problem,” Obama said. “The goal here is just to make progress.” Progress in America today appears to be simply fewer gun deaths, which everyone can agree on.
The difficult part of how to achieve that progress was left untouched, the big questions left unanswered, and largely unasked. Who, if anyone, can have guns? What kind of guns can they have? And where, how, and under what circumstances can they use them? As a testament to where Americans appear to be on guns, and presumably why the N.R.A. doesn’t feel the need to show up for events like this, Obama repeatedly stressed how small, how constrained these changes are. A majority of Democrats, Republicans, and even gun owners, after all, support the measure and the message appears to be that that’s better than large, bold ideas at this point. The town hall gave the impression the N.R.A. is so far out in front, that the administration and its gun control allies are so utterly without momentum, that they’re just trying to get a point on the board before time runs out on a presidency.
“This is not a proposal to solve every problem,” was a line Obama retreated to throughout the program. Perhaps grander ambition would have helped a town hall that conspicuously felt like a conversation about someone standing on the other side of the room—no toes were stepped on, no feathers ruffled, no voices raised, everyone’s freedoms were left untouched just as they were before the cameras started rolling, everyone went home as they came, as if the house wasn’t already on fire.