WASHINGTON — The nation’s largest gun lobby, which has stayed mostly quiet since the shootings that killed 26 people at a Connecticut elementary school a week ago, called Friday for Congress to require armed security guards in every school, saying that doing so could prevent acts of mass violence from happening again.
In a defiant and unapologetic speech, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said Friday that the organization would use its resources to build what he called a "national school shield emergency program." The NRA’s program will be led by Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman and U.S. attorney from Arkansas.
LaPierre on Friday blamed the Connecticut shooting spree on violent video games and movies, as well as the portrayal of guns and mass shootings in the media and the lack of a comprehensive database of the mentally ill. He also said no-gun zones at schools could invite new attacks by those he described as “monsters and predators.” The only thing stopping a “bad guy with a gun” is “a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.
"What if, when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he’d been confronted by qualified, armed security?" LaPierre said. “Will you at least admit it’s possible that 26 little kids, that 26 innocent lives might have been spared that day?”
The organization, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country, announced its plan in Washington just 90 minutes after President Barack Obama and many Americans observed a moment of silence for the 20 first-graders and six adults who died last week after a gunman forced his way into a Connecticut school with a semiautomatic rifle and two handguns. Lanza, who took his own life, also killed his mother, who owned the guns.
Friday’s heavily guarded event drew hundreds of reporters to the Willard Hotel, just a few blocks from the White House. Beefy security guards in suits – but no visible weapons – restricted entrance to a hotel ballroom. They asked reporters politely for credentials, and one non-uniformed guard also patrolled with a dog.
Dozens of protesters lined the street outside the hotel. Many were carrying "Stop the NRA" signs. Despite the security guards, two of the protesters interrupted LaPierre’s speech by unfurling banners and yelling. “The NRA is killing our children!” one of the protesters shouted.
Outside the hotel, Josh Neirman, a 27-year-old Vermont native who lives in Washington, said he felt compelled to attend the protest because the city has no vote in Congress and he wanted his voice to be heard. He called for Congress to reconsider reinstating a ban on so-called assault rifles.
"We don’t need weapons like that on the street," he said. "It’s time for the NRA to step aside."
LaPierre and Hutchinson declined to take questions about their proposal, including whether the NRA is working with the White House. Obama this week asked Vice President Joe Biden to head up efforts to address gun violence.
In recent years, Americans have struggled with the questions raised by horrifying mass acts of violence, including the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and the 2011 Arizona shooting spree that killed six and wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But the age, innocence and vulnerability of the Newtown, Conn., children challenged even some strong advocates of gun rights to reconsider their position, particularly on military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazine clips that allow shooters to fire multiple rounds.
“Everything should be on the table," West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat and lifelong NRA member, said earlier this week, though he later insisted, “I’m not supporting a ban on anything.”
Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, issued a statement Friday saying the NRA’s proposal represented “extreme rhetoric” whose time was over.
“The NRA could have chosen to be a voice for the vast majority of its own members who want commonsense, reasonable safeguards on deadly firearms, but instead it chose to defend extreme pro-gun positions that aren’t even popular among the law-abiding gun owners it represents,” he said.
Republicans were mostly silent after the LaPierre speech, with some unsurprising exceptions: Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, an avid hunter and longtime gun-rights advocate, applauded the proposal.
“Schools across the country have become unnecessary targets to violence and mayhem,” he said in a statement. “Having trained law enforcement within the school to protect both the staff and our children would provide a line of defense that has long been afforded various institutions such as our nation’s airports, federal buildings and museums.”
School officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, dismissed the NRA idea. Schools should be “safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who has led a national campaign to reduce gun violence in cities, called LaPierre’s speech a “paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America, where everyone is armed and no place is safe.”
Some Republicans, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also said schools shouldn’t be “armed camps for kids.”
“I don’t think that’s a positive example for children,” he told reporters Friday during an event in Newark. “We should be able to figure out other ways to enhance safety.”
In a video Friday morning, Obama urged Americans to call Congress "as many times as it takes" to push for gun restrictions. His remarks were in a video response to the record number of "We The People" petitions that have been submitted to the White House since the shootings.
Americans have a long history of gun ownership, Obama said, and the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. He said he found it encouraging that many gun owners stepped forward in recent days to say that there are measures that can be taken to balance constitutional rights and safety. He also said he would do everything in his power as president to address safety, mental health issues and the culture of violence that could have contributed to the tragedy.
"If there’s even one thing we can do as a country to protect our children, we have a responsibility to try," the president said.
Obama earlier this week called on Congress to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips as he announced that the vice president would lead an effort to develop "concrete proposals" to stem gun violence. Obama said he expects action in January.
The White House said Obama supports legislation reintroduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to revive an assault-weapon ban that expired in 2004. The White House also said that the president supports ending a loophole that allowed Americans to skirt federal background checks by purchasing assault weapons at gun shows, where standard background checks may be waived.
Among the reasons last week’s killing spree was so deadly: the gunman had large-capacity magazine clips that allowed him to fire multiple rounds before having to reload.
A Pew Research Center survey this week found that the public’s attitudes toward gun control have shown modest change since the Connecticut shootings. Of the Americans surveyed this week, 49 percent say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 42 percent say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.
It marks the first time since Obama took office that more Americans prioritize gun control than the right to own guns, Pew said.
Regardless, Pew found that support for gun control remains lower than before Obama took office. In April 2008, 58 percent of those surveyed said it was more important to control gun ownership. At the time, just 37 percent prioritized protecting gun rights.
Lesley Clark and David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @erikabolstad