The gun rights group — a powerful force in American politics — used speeches and videos to try to blunt an emotionally charged wave of calls for new gun restrictions since a gunman armed with an AR-15 rifle killed 17 people at a Parkland, Fla., high school. As the teens who escaped the bloodshed have passionately campaigned for new laws, it appears the politics around the fraught issue of gun control are shifting, with President Trump and some conservative lawmakers expressing a willingness to consider at least modest measures.
While the NRA initially held back from the fray, that changed as a spokeswoman debated survivors of the attack during a heated town hall and then Wayne LaPierre, the group’s chief executive, forcefully decried gun-control advocates and the media for its coverage of the shooting.
“They don’t care about our schoolchildren,” LaPierre said Thursday morning near the start of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md. “They want to make all of us less free.”
LaPierre also restated his belief that more armed security would stop school shootings, echoing Trump, while calling on parents and local authorities to beef up security on campuses. Later in the day, the Broward County Sheriff acknowledged that an armed and uniformed deputy who was assigned to the Florida school did not enter the building while the attack was happening last week, taking a defensive position outside; the deputy, who was suspended, has since resigned.
“Evil walks among us,” LaPierre said. “And God help us if we don’t harden our schools and protect our kids.”
LaPierre’s speech came on the heels of the NRA releasing a video claiming that “the mainstream media love mass shootings.” The video argued that members of the media benefit from covering mass shootings and use them “to juice their ratings and push their agenda.”
Since the rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, media coverage has been dominated by the attack’s survivors, who responded with a push of furious activism unseen after previous mass shootings. Teenagers who hid in closets and ran for their lives quickly began calling for increased gun control, assailing the NRA and organizing around their message.
The survivors called for new gun restrictions in a rally Wednesday in Tallahassee, the Florida capital, and then reiterated the pleas that night at a town hall hosted by CNN and attended by lawmakers and Dana Loesch, an NRA spokeswoman.
Loesch, speaking Thursday before LaPierre, echoed the NRA’s advertisement and castigated the news media with racially charged remarks.
“Many in legacy media love mass shootings,” Loesch said. “I’m not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold.”
Loesch questioned why there was a nationally televised town hall after one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern American history but no similar event for “thousands of grieving black mothers in Chicago every weekend.”
During her appearance the previous night, Loesch sought to direct the discussion toward who should be able to obtain firearms, highlighting numerous red flags in the alleged gunman’s past, including concerns from school officials and a warning ignored by the FBI.
Israel — who has said his agency is reviewing its prior interactions with the shooter as well as its response to the attack — said more armed officers alone would not solve the problems revealed by the Douglas shooting, but he announced plans to send deputies with rifles to police the county’s schools.
The alleged shooter had no criminal record and was able to purchase his guns legally, officials said. Loesch sharply questioned how law enforcement had handled warnings about the suspect and criticized what she called “flawed” background check systems.
“I don’t believe that this insane monster should have ever been able to obtain a firearm,” Loesch said during the forum Wednesday night. “This individual was nuts.”
Speaking the following morning, Loesch also said she condemned those at the FBI who fumbled warnings about the shooter. “The government has proven it cannot keep you safe,” she said.
David Bowdich, acting deputy director of the FBI, said Thursday that he was concerned about his agency’s public standing.
“When I look through the prism of risk for our organization, I find the number one risk for our organization is losing the faith and confidence of the American people,” Bowdich said in response to a question about attacks on the bureau, including those by the NRA.
Critics of the NRA dismissed its comments, which Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called “pathetic, out of touch ideas.” Some gun-control groups also questioned why the NRA was being given such a prominent platform in the debate, both by CNN and in Trump’s remarks.
“I am so outraged that the NRA is being given a seat at the table, whether its by the media or by the president,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group seeking gun-control changes. “We’re acting as though lobbyists have a right to have a say, or to help us write our nation’s gun policies. They don’t.”
She also attributed the NRA’s push to put more guns in schools as a way to increase firearms sales, noting that gun sales have fallen under Trump. Under Obama, amid fears that his administration would seek more gun restrictions, these sales reached record highs.
Much like Loesch’s remarks, LaPierre’s speech went beyond the gun debate to touch on other politically charged issues. LaPierre, whose confrontational remarks have become a CPAC tradition, mentioned “rogue leadership” at the FBI, warned of “European socialists” in the Democratic Party, invoked illegal immigration and referenced the opioid epidemic.
LaPierre said he was “horrified” by the Parkland tragedy, criticizing what he called “opportunists” who would “exploit tragedy for political gain.” He invoked his own comment following the 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., saying Thursday that “to stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.”
During his speech, LaPierre decried schools as “gun-free zones,” though Douglas had an armed officer on the campus at the time of the attack — who Israel has said did not enter the building or confront the shooter as people were being killed. LaPierre questioned why more armed protection was afforded to everything from banks and jewelry stores to movie stars, professional sports games and politicians.
Shortly before LaPierre spoke, Trump tweeted a message of support for him and others at the NRA as “Great People and Great American Patriots” who he said would “do the right thing.”
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2018
Trump has also echoed the NRA in calling for more armed security at schools and emphasized the idea of arming teachers as a way to deter future attacks. Trump has publicly and privately floated actions that would be at odds with some positions of the NRA — a group that heavily backed him during his campaign for the presidency — including suggesting that the age for purchasing assault rifles be raised from 18 to 21.
“Legislative proposals that prevent law-abiding adults aged 18-20 years old from acquiring rifles and shotguns effectively prohibits them for purchasing any firearm, thus depriving them of their constitutional right to self-protection,” Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the group, said in a statement.
The alleged shooter in South Florida had purchased at least 10 guns, all rifles and shotguns, including the AR-15 used in the massacre, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the probe.
Grover Norquist, a member of the NRA’s board, said he supports gun-purchase restrictions on those who are adjudicated as dangers to themselves and those who are violent felons, but he said he opposes raining the gun ownership age.
“I am opposed to infantalizing teenagers,” Norquist said. “The guys on the left believe that treating people as children who are eligible to vote and join the military makes sense. I take the view that restricting people as children who are 18, 19, 20 years old is not helpful. I think it is a bad idea to treat adults as children.”
In Florida, a day after high school students swamped the state capital to rally for new gun restrictions, Republican lawmakers were expected to release legislative language Thursday or Friday with proposals responding to Parkland. The bills are expected to include at least one provision increasing in the minimum age for purchasing semiautomatic rifles to 21.
Republican Sen. Bill Galvano, the next Senate president who has long supported the NRA’s legislative priorities, is leading the effort in his body, and he said the NRA’s opposition to raising the age limit was unlikely to defeat the bill.
“It doesn’t complicate my efforts,” he said Thursday. “I think the desire to act and do something meaningful right now seems to be what’s going to win the day.”
Michael Scherer, in Tallahassee, and Matt Zapotosky and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report, which has been updated.