CNN’s ‘Guns in America’ Town Hall Was More Like a WWF Match

A viewer looking for a genuine contest of ideas during Obama’s appearance Thursday night found instead a set of stock characters—what the network hoped would be good television.

President Obama may have expected tough questions in Thursday night’s “Guns in America” town hall, but I think it’s fair to say he was ambushed.

Of the first five questions, three came from gun-rights advocates who made it clear they were not there to get answers so much as to air grievances. A rape survivor, a sheriff, and the widow of American Sniper Chris Kyle all made for sympathetic characters whose backstory brought emotional weight to an argument against further gun regulation that was less constitutional than Hobbesian: Criminals don’t obey laws, so why bother making them? Or, as Taya Kyle confusingly put it, “We cannot outlaw murder.”

Later, a representative from firearms retailers made a softer pitch: Just don’t make any new laws, he argued, echoing a familiar conservative talking point. “Just enforce the ones we have.” Obama restrained his eye roll and pointed out that, by definition, nothing he was proposing was a new law. That would require Congress to act, after all.

A bleak outlook on the power of even the point of government was widely held on both sides of the debate. Gun-control advocates who spoke to the president queried with pessimism and dark humor. Chicago’s Father Michael Pfleger wondered aloud—more than asked—why it was that we can’t “title guns like cars”? Obama didn’t answer that question directly, and why should he bother? Everyone knows why we can’t title guns like cars, and it’s because of those people who were talking just before Father Pfleger, the ones who might argue that car titles don’t keep people from stealing.

Mark Kelly, Gabby Giffords’s husband, posed a thought experiment to the president: There are 350,000,000 guns in America, Kelly said. If you were going to confiscate them, how would you go about doing it?

That is both a silly question and an honest one, something Ted Cruz and other alarmists should have to answer more than Obama. Still, the absurdity of Kelly’s question was no match for Anderson Cooper’s surreal escalation of the argument. After Obama dismissed the confiscation shibboleth as a conspiracy, Cooper asked, “Is it fair to call it a conspiracy? A lot of people believe it.”

Cooper might as well have asked about the president’s long-form birth certificate or whether jet fuel can really melt steel. Obama lost his professorial cool and snapped incredulously: “Yes, that is a conspiracy. I would hope that you would agree with that. Is that controversial, except on some websites around the country?”

It was the evening’s least scripted and most optimistic moment: the president confidently laughing off a right-wing article of faith. Such effusiveness stood in sharp contrast to the forced studiousness with which he responded to the polite and sincere inanities of the gun-rights advocates. He wore a new dimple into his lip with all the times he tapped at it thoughtfully with his finger. He developed a new survey map of wrinkles with his concerned squints.

I’d like to believe the gun-rights advocates were, well, disarmed by his graciousness and courageous lack of sarcasm, but I doubt it. What I suspect is that CNN’s main accomplishment of the night was to solidify another political cycle’s worth of right-wing folk heroes. That sheriff is already running for Congress. I predict Taya Kyle will be on the ballot somewhere by the end of the decade.

CNN called it a town hall, but it was more like a professional wrestling match. Anyone who tuned in with genuine curiosity about a contest of ideas found instead a set of stock characters, familiar if stylized attacks, and ginned-up confrontations. The outcome of the bout was not so much predetermined as beside the point, and the point—as far as I could tell—was to create conditions conducive to good television.

Not that it was good television. The most casual WWF fan would have noticed what was missing right away: CNN forgot to invite a villain. Or, rather, the network invited a villain—and instead the president came.