President Obama vows to take gun debate to the ballot box

President Obama defended steps he initiated this week aimed at reducing gun violence as a modest effort "just to make progress," underscoring the limits of his new unilateral actions while vowing to seek more significant change through the ballot box.

In a New York Times op-ed published Thursday evening just before he appeared at a nationally televised town hall meeting on gun violence, Obama pledged not to support any candidate for political office, even a fellow Democrat, if he or she does not support what he called "common-sense gun reform."

"And if the 90 percent of Americans who do support common-sense gun reforms join me, we will elect the leadership we deserve," he wrote.

Speaking later at the CNN-hosted forum at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Obama explained the limited actions he announced this week while bristling at how he says his views on gun ownership have been "consistently mischaracterized" by political opponents.

"The way Washington changes is when people vote," Obama said. The debate won't change, he said, until gun control advocates show the same focus and discipline at the ballot box as those opposed to gun control. "And I'm going to throw my shoulders behind folks who want to actually solve problems instead of just getting a high score from an interest group."

Obama's announcement that guns would become a litmus test for his political endorsement was the latest example of how he views the issue as central to his legacy. The regularity of high-profile mass shootings and the inability of Obama to enact new limits on gun ownership came to weigh heavily on a man who first ran for the presidency on a pledge to end the Iraq war and end an era of political gridlock.

The massacre of young children and school officials in Newtown, Conn., led to the first major legislative effort to expand background checks, one that ultimately failed. Obama noted the emotional toll the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School took on him, saying his visit with victims' families days later even brought members of his Secret Service detail to tears.

A more recent mass shooting at an Oregon college led the president to consider anew ways he could act on his own authority on guns. He announced Tuesday he was directing federal agencies to warn private gun sellers that they may be vulnerable to prosecution if they don't register with the government and conduct background checks on gun buyers, among other steps.

"This is not a recipe for solving every problem," he said. "The goal here is just to make progress."

Obama mocked the nation's most powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Assn., for refusing to engage in a meaningful policy discussion. He noted that the NRA's headquarters was "just down the street" from the town hall venue but that the group had refused to participate.

"Since this is the main reason they exist, you'd think they'd be prepared to have a debate with the president," Obama said.

The idea for a town hall discussion initiated with CNN after last month's San Bernardino shootings, both the network and the White House said Thursday. Attendees included representatives of law enforcement and gun sellers, as well as families of victims of gun violence and other advocates.

The president took questions from Taya Kyle, widow of "American Sniper" inspiration Chris Kyle, as well as the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Chicago pastor and gun control activist.

Though the president didn't suggest the forum, the extended discussion, touching on a myriad of issues related to gun rights and public safety, was precisely the kind of substantive exchange he's craved on an issue that has lent itself to extreme rhetoric.

Earlier Thursday the president's chief spokesman criticized Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz for a campaign solicitation that declared, "Obama wants your guns," and included a sinister portrayal of the president.

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"I think he's appealing to people's anxieties and insecurities and even outright fears in an attempt to win votes for his presidential campaign.  And that's unfortunate," said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. "In some cases, it veers into the territory of being irresponsible."

During the discussion Obama repeatedly addressed what he said was a "conspiracy" propagated by political critics that he wanted to take people's guns away. He noted bluntly that gun sales have skyrocketed during his administration.

"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 common-sense rules that will make us safer while preserving the 2nd Amendment," he said.

Follow @mikememoli for more news out of Washington.

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