WASHINGTON — In his first extensive public remarks since last week’s mass shooting at a Connecticut school, the head of the National Rifle Association called Friday for lawmakers to take action to put armed security guards in all schools in an effort to curb such violence.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said at a news conference in Washington.
LaPierre called on Congress “to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation.” In his remarks, LaPierre suggested that guards could be drawn from a pool of qualified private citizens who would work with law enforcement officials. He offered NRA help — “free of charge” — in setting up such a program and training the guards.
Offering no new gun restriction proposals, LaPierre lashed out against violent video games and films, as well the media’s coverage of gun owners. His answer to addressing gun violence in schools was the creation of a model emergency response program in which schools can choose to participate.
The NRA’s posture could set off a national debate over two starkly different views about curbing gun violence. On one side stand those like LaPierre, who believe that arming more citizens is the answer; on the other, gun-control advocates pressing for tighter restrictions on firearms. After LaPierre wrapped up his remarks, his proposal to put armed guards in schools was met with criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.
Even as he was speaking, LaPierre faced pushback. He was interrupted twice during his remarks by anti-gun protesters. One held up a sign that read: “NRA Killing Our Kids.” After pausing briefly, he continued to speak after the protesters were removed.
“Politicians pass laws for gun-free school zones,” LaPierre said. “They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And, in doing so, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.” The NRA chief took no questions after his speech.
The remarks came after a week of near-silence from the NRA in the wake of the mass shooting last Friday in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The group’s social media accounts went dark, and it issued just one public statement, saying its members were “shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders.”
LaPierre said Friday that if the Newtown school had had armed officers on site, lives may have been saved.
“Will you at least admit it’s possible … that 26 innocent lives might have been spared that day?” he asked.
People at a Newtown shopping center Friday had mixed reactions to LaPierre’s proposals. Most had not heard specifics, but they were asked what they thought about the idea of stationing an armed guard at every school in America.
“I think it’s probably a good idea,” said one woman who declined to give her name. “Just for the obvious reasons. If someone had been there with a gun, maybe nobody would have gotten killed — except for [the gunman].”
Stephen Csuvuhi, coming out of a grocery store, said he thought the NRA proposal “sounds just as dangerous” as leaving the schools unprotected.
But another woman, Jean Frank, said, “It might not be a bad idea.”
Hallie Kerrigan, who was strapping her young daughter into a car seat outside a T.J. Maxx store, said she is strongly opposed to the NRA proposal.
“I’m a Republican, and I have changed my views dramatically because of this,” she said. “I was very supportive of the right to bear arms, but I swiftly, swiftly changed my views. It changes how you think when it happens to you.”
“Assault weapons should be banned,” she added.”There is no need to have weapons like that in your home.”
Kerrigan proposed raising taxes on gun purchases, as with taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. “Let’s make them so expensive that you can’t afford them,” she said.
Kerrigan, who said her daughter’s dance school lost three students in the Newtown shooting, said she thought the NRA proposal was not well thought-out.
“What happens when this happens at a grocery store? Or a gym? Or a church?” she said. “Are we going to have armed guards then at all those places? Is this going to get to a point when we’re just in a military state of emergency all the time? … I can understand what they are saying, but it’s not the answer to have police officers at every school. Don’t we owe our children more than that?”
“The NRA is just trying to take the blame off themselves,” she added. “They want to say, ‘We’re not the problem, but we will help you.’ I’d like to see the head of the NRA make those statements after he’s seen the crime scene photos.”
The call to arm more Americans prompted swift criticism from gun-control advocates.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I, a leading voice in the effort to tighten restrictions on guns, called LaPierre’s arguments “shameful.”
“Their press conference was a shameful evasion of the crisis facing our country. Instead of offering solutions to a problem they have helped create, they offered a paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America where everyone is armed, and no place is safe,” he said.
Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D, who nearly lost her life in 2011 when a gunman opened fire at an event in Tucson, said he was disappointed with what the NRA had to say.
“Gabby and I are extremely disappointed by the NRA’s defiant and delayed response to the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” Kelly wrote on Facebook.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, put himself at odds with LaPierre when he remarked that putting armed guards in schools is not an effective countermeasure against tragedies like the one in Newtown.
“In general I don’t think that the solution to safety in schools is putting an armed guard, because for it to be really effective in my view, from a law enforcement perspective, you have to have an armed guard at every classroom,” Christie said Friday, according to the Bergen Record.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., also objected to armed guards in schools, though not because he supports more restrictions on guns. “It’s fixing the wrong problem, because the problem is cultural,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. Coburn has an “A” rating from the NRA. Both Christie and Coburn said they had not seen LaPierre speak.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a pro-gun rights Democrat and recipient of an “A” rating from the NRA , reacted differently. In a Washington Post op-ed, Manchin wrote that he was “open to a discussion about whether we need more security in our schools, as the NRA proposed in Friday’s news conference, but that can’t be the only measure that comes out of this.” Manchin said this week that he was open to discussions about new regulations on guns, though in his op-ed he called for a review of the entertainment industry and mental health services to also be part of a broader approach to addressing mass violence.
The NRA also announced the development of a “model national schools shield emergency response program” for interested schools.
“From armed security to building design and access control, to information technology, to student and teacher training, this multifaceted program will be developed by the very best experts in the field,” LaPierre said of the effort.
The initiative will be headed by former Arkansas congressman Asa Hutchinson, R, who served as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush. Hutchinson said the program will “make use of local volunteers.”
The NRA’s input came at the end of a week in which gun-control advocates stepped up their push for tighter regulations on firearms, and President Barack Obama began a new effort to reduce gun violence. Obama launched an interagency task force led by Vice President Joe Biden, and has called for Congress to take action to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Sunday that she will soon introduce a measure that would place a federal ban on assault weapons.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, a handful of Democratic senators who have received high marks from the NRA signaled an openness this week to new regulations on guns, marking a change in their positions, in the wake of the Newtown shooting.
On Friday morning, Obama released a Web video urging the public to assist in the push for new regulations. “I’m asking for your help … to make sure the United States of America is a safer, stronger place for our children to learn and to grow,” Obama said. Petitions on the White House Web site aimed at pressing the administration to take action on gun control have attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures.
Speaking at a Washington, D.C., elementary school Friday morning, Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about the need to find ways to prevent tragedies like the one in Newtown. He said that renewing the assault weapons ban, ensuring thorough background checks when people buy guns, limiting high-capacity ammunition clips, improving access to mental-health care and making sure people on campus know if there is someone who might pose a violent threat are all “common-sense ideas.” And he called for conversations about parent engagement and whether American culture glorifies violence.
Some White House officials watched the NRA news conference with interest. “That was not confidence-inspiring in terms of what constructive role they’ll play here,” said one official, requesting anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. The official was unaware of any contact with the gun-rights group over the past week.
For the first time since 2007, significantly more people strongly favor than strongly oppose stricter gun laws, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. Overall, though, the poll showed that the percentage of Americans supporting stricter gun laws is on par with previous surveys.
LaPierre was critical of those he said “have tried to exploit the tragedy [in Newtown] for political gain.” The NRA, he said, “remained respectably silent” in the wake of the mass shooting. He also offered a broader cultural criticism, decrying violent video games and films, as well as the way the media treat such things.
“There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bullet Storm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Combat’ and ‘Splatterhouse,’ ” LaPierre said.
Shortly before the NRA addressed the media, the head of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a group advocating for gun control, called on NRA members to join the effort to reduce gun violence.
“To all NRA members who believe like we do, that we are better than this, we send this message…. Join us. Join us in making sure the gun violence ends now. We are all Americans, and we all agree we are better than this,” said Brady Campaign President Daniel Gross.