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U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a live town hall event on reducing gun violence hosted by CNN’sAnderson Cooper (R) at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia January 7, 2016.

KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

President Barack Obama tore into the National Rifle Association on Thursday as he sought support for his actions on gun control, accusing the powerful lobby group of peddling an "imaginary fiction" that he said has distorted the national debate about gun violence.

In a prime-time, televised town hall meeting, Obama defended his support for the constitutional right to gun ownership while arguing it was consistent with his efforts to curb violence and mass shootings. He said the NRA was refusing to acknowledge the government's responsibility to make legal products safer, citing seatbelts and child-proof medicine bottles as examples.

"The NRA has convinced many of its members that somebody's going to come grab your guns," Obama said, describing it as a ploy to drive up sales of guns. "If you listen to the rhetoric, it is so over the top, and so overheated."

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Obama said he's always been willing to meet with the NRA to discuss gun policies – if they're willing to address the facts truthfully. He said the NRA was invited to the town hall but declined to participate. Several NRA members were in the audience for the town hall, which was organized and hosted by CNN.

"There's a reason why the NRA's not here. They're just down the street," Obama said, referring to the group's nearby headquarters in suburban Virginia. "Since this is a main reason they exist, you'd think that they'd be prepared to have a debate with the president."

The White House has sought to portray the NRA, the nation's largest gun group, as possessing a disproportionate influence over lawmakers that has prevented new gun laws despite polls that show broad U.S. support for measures like universal background checks. Last year, following a series of mass shootings, Obama pledged to "politicize" the issue in an attempt to level the playing field for gun control supporters.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said ahead of the event that the group saw "no reason to participate in a public relations spectacle orchestrated by the White House." Still, the group pushed back on Obama in real time with a stream of posts on Twitter.

"It's true: None of the president's orders would have stopped any of the recent mass shootings," the group wrote, appending the hashtag #GunsInAmerica.

Obama's broadside against the NRA came two days after unveiling a package of executive actions aimed at keeping guns from people who shouldn't have them. The centerpiece is new federal guidance that seeks to clarify who is "in the business" of selling firearms, triggering a requirement to get a license and conduct background checks on all prospective buyers.

The plan has drawn intense criticism from gun rights groups that have accused the president of trampling on the Second Amendment and railroading Congress by taking action on his own without new laws. Just after his 2012 re-election, Obama pushed hard for a bipartisan gun control bill that collapsed in the Senate, ending any realistic prospects for a legislative solution in the near term.

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Ahead of the town hall, Obama put political candidates on notice that he would refuse to support or campaign for anyone who "does not support common-sense gun reform" – including Democrats.

All the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination support stricter gun laws, so Obama's declaration in a New York Times op-ed isn't likely to have an impact on the race to replace him. Instead, it appeared aimed at Democratic congressional candidates from competitive districts who might want Obama's support on the campaign trail this year.

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