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After March for Our Lives, students and senators take aim at NRA

Markell Merritt, center, a 15-year-old high school student, participates in the March for Our Lives rally in Las Vegas on Saturday. (Andrea Cornejo/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP)

Proponents of new gun-reform measures largely had the Sunday talk shows to themselves this week, with student activists and Democratic senators dominating the conversation and one Republican senator distancing herself somewhat from the National Rifle Association.

The NRA, frequently attacked from the stages of March for Our Lives rallies, came up repeatedly. On “Fox News Sunday,” two students were pushed into a kind of debate, with Parkland shooting survivor Cameron Kasky asked to respond to Kyle Kashuv, a fellow student who argued that march organizers had not been honest about their desire to ban “assault rifles.”

“We are not trying to take away everybody’s guns away, and the NRA wants people to think that,” Kasky said. “They are fearmongers. They want to sell weapons by exploiting people’s fears. So, the second we want to put common-sense resolutions on these assault weapons, the NRA will say they are trying to steal every single one of your guns, and people believe them. Fortunately, the majority of the American people see past this.”

Delaney Tarr, another Parkland student and speaker at the march, argued that some of the momentum for new gun laws had been slowed when President Trump “had a meeting with the NRA” and “backed down” on some of what he had proposed at a meeting with members of Congress.

“To call it a coincidence seems like a bit of a stretch because to say all of these incredibly firm stances and then to immediately backpedal on them after having a meeting with the NRA?” Tarr said. “Not a long time period of difference there. It reads sketchy to me.”

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On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) responded to criticism of the NRA’s support for her 2014 election, saying she had “no control” over what the group did politically.

“Many outside organizations will run advertisements without the consent of candidates,” she said. “I am not separating myself from the NRA. I would state that there are a lot of outside organizations that cannot coordinate with candidates or their campaigns. That’s against election law. So they will do what they want to do. But I will say that I am a supporter of the Constitution, I’m a supporter of our Bill of Rights . . . simply stating ‘we need to get rid of other people’s rights’ is not the right way forward.”

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) did not offer specific gun-safety proposals, but he suggested that the student protesters were right to urge change. Kasich and Ernst were the only elected Republicans to stop by the shows this weekend.

“They got to keep it up,” the governor said. “If they don’t keep it up, those that want no change will just sit on their hands. They will never come out and say anything. They will just try to stall, stall, stall until the steam comes out of the kettle. And the fact is, if we can keep the pressure on, we’re not going to change everything overnight, but you can get significant changes. And I hope so. And if they do not bring about change, I think people should be held absolutely accountable at the ballot box.”

In another segment, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said student energy around gun reform could “turn the tide” on the issue and had loosened the NRA’s grip on Republican legislators.

[‘Never again!’ Students demand action against gun violence in nation’s capital]

“The NRA leadership, funded by gun manufacturers, has basically been able to gridlock everything in Congress now for nearly decades,” Kaine said. “That’s why Congress has not been willing to act, even to do things that an overwhelming majority of the American public want us to do, but the activism in these young people is actually changing the equation.”

The NRA was not represented on any Sunday shows, but on Saturday, it had described the March for Our Lives rallies as exploitative distractions from the need for “school safety” — something usually defined by the NRA as arming guards and teachers at schools by offering them training and funding.

“Today’s protests aren’t spontaneous,” the NRA wrote on Facebook. “The gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment and strip us of our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones.”

[The 6 most memorable speeches at the March for Our Lives in D.C.]

The reference to “Hollywood elites” highlighted some of the funding sources for the demonstrations. In the wake of the shooting at Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, several celebrities, including George Clooney and Steven Spielberg, had donated to help put on Saturday’s events. On “Fox News Sunday,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich speculated there was something mysterious about how well-planned the rallies had been.

“I think it would be fascinating to know who paid for it all,” Gingrich (R-Ga.) said. “I mean, the left has this wonderful ability to mobilize, so the day after inaugural, you have the Women’s March. People come in buses. Who paid for the buses? People who organize the whole process, who brought the entertainers?”

Leaders of gun-reform groups were not shy about taking credit. On ABC News’s “This Week,” Mark Kelly, the husband of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D) and co-founder of the Giffords PAC, echoed students in saying that public pressure was needed to overwhelm the NRA.

“President Trump on Tuesday was pretty good on this issue,” Kelly said. “He saw the National Rifle Association in the Oval Office on Wednesday. They made it clear that this was not acceptable to them. The next day, he dialed it all back. So I’m hopeful that if we could get Congress, get the House and Senate to pass some sensible legislation, we get it to his desk, I think there’s a pretty good chance he might sign it. And if it’s not him, you know, we’ll work on whoever the next president is.”

Drew Harwell contributed to this report.