The head of the National Rifle Association (NRA) Wayne LaPierre has claimed gun control advocates “hate freedom” but failed to directly address the young survivors of the latest mass shooting in Florida who have been so vocal in calling for change in the wake of the tragedy.
In a fiery speech that was full of deeply divisive language, Mr LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy were eager to blame the NRA and were calling “for even more government control”.
He also went after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), mental health laws and “opportunists” who seek to “smear” the NRA.
The leader of America’s biggest gun rights lobbying group, Mr La Pierre did not suggest any changes to existing gun laws, despite an increasing outcry over the death of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Relying on the old NRA trope of bemoaning the “elites” who hate the Second Amendment, Mr LaPierre set out a staunch defence of the NRA’s position as he played to the conservative crowd.
“They [the elites] care more about control – and more of it. Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment,” Mr LaPierre said.
“Their solution is to make you – all of you – less free. They want to sweep right under the carpet the failure of school security, the failure of family, the failure of America’s mental health system and even the unbelievable failure of the FBI,” he added, referring to the FBI’s admission it had not fully investigated some tips about regarding the suspected Florida shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz.
The combative tone of the rhetoric Mr LaPierre used in his speech had been set in an earlier address by NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, who accused Democrats and media outlets of exploiting the Florida shooting for “ratings gold”.
“Many in legacy media love mass shootings, you guys love it,” she said. “Now I’m not saying that you love the tragedy, but I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold.”
Mr LaPierre said that his organisation “mourned” the loss of lives in the Florida shooting – but he did not expressly address the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who have spent days lobby political officials in Florida and Washington and organising protests advocating gun control. One such protest at in Florida’s state capital Tallahassee involved a blunt and impassioned warning to politicians: take action or we will vote you out. One shooting survivor also appeared with Florida Senator Marco Rubio at a town hall event organised by CNN on Wednesday night and called on him to turn down future funding from the NRA.
Mr LaPierre appeared on stage in the wake of a ringing endorsement of President Donald Trump, who tweeted just ahead of Mr LaPierre’s appearance: “What many people don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, is that Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Earlier on Thursday, Mr Trump had 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 despite a change in age limits being opposed by the NRA.
However, Mr LaPierre did take a leaf out of Mr Trump’s playbook in seeming to blame everything for the shooting, other than the largest element – the availability of weapons. He called Democrats and others “opportunists” for trying to exploit the tragedy, something Carly Novell, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student, said was ”disrespectful and insensitive” – even if Mr LaPierre did not directly aim it at survivors.
“I just think that’s disrespectful and insensitive to call us opportunists when all we’re trying to do is to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in America,” she told CNN.
Mr LaPierre’s stance was condemned by the Democrat’s Senate leader Chuck Schumer, who said the NRA was “once again spewing pathetic, out-of-touch ideas, blaming everything but guns”.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump had met with students and parents from Parkland, along with local officials, in an hour-long “listening session” at the White House. During the event, which included frequently emotional testimony from students who survived the attack but lost friends and classmates, the President said he was interested in the idea of arming teachers as a way of ensuring safety at schools.
He admitted not everyone agreed with the proposal – something that was proven by opponents of the idea, many of them teachers, who said it would add an additional and unfair responsibility for educators.
“That coach was very brave, saved a lot of lives, I suspect,” Mr Trump said, referring to Aaron Feis, a coach at Stoneman Douglas who reportedly died using his body as a shield to protect students.
“But if he had a firearm, he wouldn’t have had to run, he would have shot and that would have been the end of it.”
In a sign that any difference between Mr Trump and the NRA would not become a major issue, Mr LaPierre bolstered the President’s call by portraying the NRA as the true protector of the country’s schoolchildren and offering free training to those who want to bear arms to protect schools.
“We must immediately harden our schools,” Mr LaPierre 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.
Speaking after Mr LaPierre at CPAC, Vice President Mike Pence said that in a meeting with governors at the White House next Monday, Mr Trump and the state leaders will “make the safety of our nation’s schools and our students our top national priority”.
At the White House, Mr Trump met with other officials as part of what he has insisted is a promise to address gun violence, particularly mass shootings in school, and doubled down on the idea of arming teachers – using some of the same language that Mr LaPierre had used earlier.
“We have to harden those schools, not soften them,” Mr Trump said. “A gun-free zone, to a killer, or somebody that wants to be a killer, that’s like going in for the ice cream. That’s like saying, ‘here I am, take me’,” the President added.
“Instead of advertising, ‘This school has no guns, we are gun-free,’ you let the people know the opposite. No one is going to attack that school, believe me,” he said.
Despite the mixed reaction to the suggestion of arming teachers, with many opposing such a move, Mr Trump said that he would approve of teachers carrying a weapon if they had the “aptitude” for it.
“If they have the aptitude, I think a concealed permit for having teachers and letting people know that there are people in the building with guns... you won't have these shootings,” he said, loosely suggesting they would need to re-qualify maybe once or twice a year. He even floated the idea that any such teachers should be paid a “a bit of a bonus”.
“[Attackers are] not going to walk into a school if 20 per cent of the teachers have guns,” Mr Trump said. “It may be 10 per cent or may be 40 per cent. And what I’d recommend doing is the people that do carry, we give them a bonus... They’ll frankly feel more comfortable having the gun anyway. But you give them a little bit of a bonus,” he added.
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