Anderson Cooper Hosts Gun-Control Town Hall at GW

The CNN host moderated a discussion with representatives of all sides of the issue. The show aired last Thursday on Anderson Cooper 360°.

February 04, 2013

By Kurtis Hiatt

The gun-control debate made its way to the George Washington University on Thursday, as Anderson Cooper moderated a discussion at the Jack Morton Auditorium, in which panelists tackled issues from universal background checks and an assault weapons ban to the need for armed guards in schools and the role mental health and violent media may play in all of it.

“Tonight, we want to try to cut through the talking points and the slogans, and have an actual discussion that zeros in on some key issues and what goals, if any, are actually achievable,” Mr. Cooper said.

The debate, already “louder and more urgent,” in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Conn., Mr. Cooper said, became even more so when, during Thursday’s taping, the host received word that a student had been shot outside a middle school in Atlanta.

On stage and in the audience during the discussion were voices from all sides and perspectives of the gun-control debate. There was Colin Goddard, who survived the Virginia Tech shooting; Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; and Veronique Pozner, a mother who lost her son, Noah, in the Sandy Hook shootings. And there was Sandy Froman, a National Rifle Association board member, and Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

The nation is at a “tipping point in terms of the outrage of the American public wanting to do something about this issue,” said Mr. Gross, pressing for universal background checks because, he said, 40 percent of gun sales in the country don’t require one.

Ms. Froman disagreed on the need for more checks. The NRA, she said, supports the current system; adding to it would be costly and amount to more “bureaucracy.”

“Why should a law-abiding citizen who isn’t a problem, who is not a criminal, have to go through additional background checks?” she said.

Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia’s police commissioner, said he wasn’t concerned about the cost of background checks given the potential for benefits. “I’m from law enforcement, I’ll spend the money. Because to me, it’s a much greater cost in terms of human lives,” he told Ms. Froman. Roughly 30,000 Americans are killed each year by guns.

Those in attendance also questioned whether limiting the type of guns sold—an estimated 310 million are currently in circulation in the country—might be a partial solution.

Cpl. Josh Boston, a former Marine who wrote a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., opposing her proposal, said he doesn’t support an assault-weapons ban. In a life-or-death situation, he said, “you lose motor control function, and you shake, and you miss.” An AR-15 rifle would be easier to use than a 12-gauge shotgun, he said.

But it’s not necessarily clear that Americans have a constitutional right to a weapon like an AR-15, said Jeffrey Toobin, a senior legal analyst for CNN. While the Supreme Court has upheld the Second Amendment right to own a handgun, “what other kinds of rights you have to have other guns is now frankly pretty mysterious.”

Taking on the need for armed guards in schools, Mr. Cooper brought on Virginia Tech survivor Mr. Goddard and former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., who now leads the NRA’s School Shield initiative, which advocates in part for placing guards.

“I just don’t understand why the first idea put forth is something that might help at the last second,” said Mr. Goddard. “We can do better than what we’re doing now, and we can do things in advance, the weeks and the months beforehand to keep a dangerous person and a gun from coming in the first place. We don’t take that seriously. We don’t do background checks on people. That’s nuts.”

The focus should be on safety in schools, the former congressman argued, and helping officials assess security and consider not only guards but also the architecture and technology in the building.

And while she can’t be sure an armed guard would have made a difference at Sandy Hook, Ms. Pozner said she does feel a certain reassurance because there is a police presence at the school’s new location, where she drops off her daughters each day.

“Until we have universal background checks, better reporting from the states, and just more safety across the board, maybe a presence in schools is worth considering,” she said.

What about the role of violent media in all of this? It has “washed over Americans in their living rooms, on their flat screens and computers, and at the movies,” Mr. Cooper said, but “what are the connections, if any, between our violent culture and violent acts?”

The short answer is we don’t know, at least when it comes to whether violent video games cause violent acts, said Cheryl Olson, who took up the issue in a study of middle-schoolers. And what of children with a mental illness who play video games? Same answer, Dr. Olson said.

The role mental illness plays in contributing to violent acts is another hot-button issue. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said just 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by someone who is mentally ill.

It’s important, then, to separate what mental illnesses may predispose a person to violence and which ones aren’t likely to, experts said. Mr. Gross said states need to pass on data to the federal government that helps identify those who may be prone to violence.

But through all of this, is there any common ground between the advocates and opponents of gun control? It was a question Amardeep Kaleka, whose father was killed in the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, asked earlier in the program.

By the end, Mr. Gross and Ms. Froman still couldn’t seem to identify it.

Mr. Gross said surveys show nine in 10 Americans, 80 percent of gun owners and 74 percent of NRA members support universal background checks.

But Ms. Froman couldn’t agree.

“I think if you talk to most Americans, what they’ll say is the problem is not law-abiding gun owners. The problem is criminals,” she said. “Anytime you regulate inanimate objects rather than the behavior of people who intend to be violent, you’re wasting your time. You’re wasting your energy.”

Robert Wood, a sophomore in the School of Business who attended the taping, agreed.

“At the end of the day, it is not guns that are to blame for the tragedies that have occurred, but rather the people that have chosen to wield them,” said Mr. Wood, who said more emphasis should be placed on mental health and less on attempting to add more background checks.

Events like Thursday’s gun-control town hall are very important, George Washington President Steven Knapp said in his introduction.

“It is very meaningful to us as a community,” Dr. Knapp said. “I think that universities like ours have a role that we can and must play in fostering a reasoned discussion of pressing challenges that face our nation.”

For a full transcript of the show, click here.