WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the National Rifle Association lashed out at gun control advocates on Thursday, calling them Democratic elites who are politicizing the latest mass school shooting in the United States to chip away at the country’s constitutionally guaranteed gun rights.
NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre delivered a full-throated defense of using guns to stop gun violence, weighing into a long-running political and cultural divide over access to weapons that has been inflamed by last week’s shooting 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 school children,” LaPierre told a friendly audience of young conservatives outside Washington. “Their goal is to eliminate the 2nd Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.”
The Feb. 14 massacre 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 school children. He bolstered a call by Republican President Donald Trump to arm teachers following the Parkland shooting, and offered free training.
“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.”
He said it should not be easier to shoot up a school than a bank or a jewelry store.
LaPierre attacked Democrats by name including Senators 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.
Trump raised the idea on Wednesday of arming teachers, drawing a mixed reaction in a country where the right to bear arms is protected by the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution and there are fierce divisions on how to curb mass shootings and everyday gun violence.
Trump, who has backed gun rights and has been supported by the NRA, raised the idea of arming teachers during an emotional, hourlong discussion with people affected by school shootings. The gathering on Wednesday included students who survived the Florida attack and a parent whose child did not. The president reiterated the idea in a series of tweets on Thursday.
Trump’s comments at the meeting and in his tweets 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.
Reporting by Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Alex Dubuzinskis in Los Angeles; Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry