WASHINGTON – The head of the National Rifle Association lashed out at gun control advocates on Thursday, saying Democratic elites are politicizing the latest mass school shooting in the United States to erode the country’s constitutionally guaranteed gun rights.
NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre echoed President Donald Trump’s call to arm teachers to prevent school shootings, and weighed into a long-running political and cultural divide over access to weapons that has been inflamed by last week’s massacre at a Florida high school that killed 17 students and staff.
“The elites don’t care not one whit about America’s school system and schoolchildren,” LaPierre told a friendly audience of conservatives outside Washington. “Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment (of the Constitution) and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.”
The Feb. 14 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was the second-deadliest shooting at a U.S. public school and has spurred unprecedented youth-led protests in cities across the country. Many of the teens and their parents taking part have called for more curbs on guns.
LaPierre, speaking at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, portrayed the NRA as the true protector of the country’s schoolchildren and offered free training to those who want to bear arms to protect schools.
“We must immediately harden our schools,” he said. “Every day, young children are being dropped off at schools that are virtually wide open, soft targets for anyone bent on mass murder.” It should not be easier to shoot up a school than a bank or a jewelry store, he added.
LaPierre attacked Democrats by name, including Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Christopher Murphy, and also took a swipe at the FBI for failing to follow up on a tip about the alleged shooter in the Parkland massacre. The FBI has said it failed to act on the tip.
Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer condemned LaPierre’s comments and said the NRA was “once again spewing pathetic, out of touch ideas, blaming everything but guns.”
Trump raised the idea on Wednesday of arming teachers, drawing a mixed reaction in a country where there are fierce divisions on how to curb mass shootings and everyday gun violence. Opinion polls indicate Democrats generally favor more restrictions on guns while Republicans oppose them.
Trump, who has backed gun rights and has been supported by the NRA, suggested arming teachers during an emotional, hourlong discussion with people affected by school shootings, including students who survived the Florida attack and a parent whose child did not.
His comments at the meeting, which he reiterated in a series of Twitter posts on Thursday, showed him seeking a balance between satisfying those who have urged him to press for some gun curbs, and not alienating the powerful NRA gun lobby.
In a tweet on Thursday the president praised the NRA’s leadership and others working at the organization as “Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing.”
The notion of arming teachers at U.S. public schools, which are largely governed by states, local councils and school boards, has been raised by some politicians in the past but has been dismissed by many critics as fraught with danger.
“Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive. GREAT DETERRENT!” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
The president was due to have a meeting on school safety with 10 state and local officials on Thursday.
Trump reiterated on Twitter he would advocate for tightening background checks for gun buyers, with an emphasis on mental health, and lifting the age limit to buy some kinds of guns.
Trump also stressed he would push for an end to the sale on bump stocks, which allow rifles to shoot hundreds of rounds a minute and which were used during a mass shooting in Las Vegas last year. Such devices were not used in the Florida shooting.
“President Trump and our entire administration will continue to take strong action to make our schools safe,” Vice President Mike Pence told the conservative conference, appearing after LaPierre.
A 19-year-old former student at Stoneman Douglas, Nikolas Cruz, has been charged with carrying out the Parkland shooting. Authorities say he was armed with a semiautomatic AR-15 assault-style rifle that he had purchased legally last year.
While gun laws vary widely from state to state, most federal gun control measures would require the Republican-controlled Congress to act. Trump suggested on Thursday he wanted some action, tweeting, “Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue — I hope!”
Schumer said Trump was pushing Congress for action on restrictions the NRA opposes, including comprehensive background checks. “The last time he showed support for sensible gun reform — no fly, no buy — he quickly dropped his support once the NRA opposed it,” the senator said. “I hope this time will be different.”
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