NATIONAl HABOR, United States (REUTERS) – The head of the National Rifle Association lashed out at gun control advocates on Thursday (Feb 22), saying Democratic elites are politicising the latest mass school shooting in the United States to try to erode 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 school children,” 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 NRA is a politically influential lobby group that endorsed Trump for president in 2016 and has close ties to conservative Republicans. The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.
At the White House, Trump told local and state school officials he had been in touch with the NRA about his ideas to stem gun violence in schools and said “there’s a tremendous feeling that we want to get something done”.
Earlier, he called the NRA “Great American Patriots.”
The Feb 14 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was the latest in a series of deadly shootings at US schools and has spurred unprecedented youth-led protests in cities across the country. Many of the teenagers 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 jewellery store, he added.
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. 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 reiterated his idea, first raised on Wednesday, of arming teachers. That has drawn 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, suggested arming teachers during an emotional, hour-long 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 showed him seeking a balance between satisfying those who have urged him to press for some gun curbs, and not alienating the powerful NRA.
The notion of arming teachers at US 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.
At an hour-long meeting on school safety with 10 state and local officials, Trump reiterated that 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 of 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.
While gun laws vary widely by state, most federal gun control measures would require the Republican-controlled Congress to act. The NRA has opposed many of those moves in the past, but Trump said he was confident there was a new urgency to do something after the Florida shooting.
“We’re going to do a strong background check, we’re going to work on getting the age up to 21 instead of 18, we’re getting rid of the bump stocks and we’re going to be focusing very strongly on mental health,” Trump told the White House meeting.
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.