The National Rifle Association on Friday called for armed police officers at every school in the nation, offering a defiant challenge to President Obama’s push for stricter gun control laws and potentially setting up a fierce legislative battle early next year.
In his first extensive public comments since the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., last week, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre read a lengthy statement that blamed video games, slasher films, the media, inadequate databases on mental illness and lax security for contributing to violence in the culture.
“I call on Congress today to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation,” LaPierre said.
He scoffed at those who he predicted would criticize his group’s proposal for the nation’s estimated 135,000 public and private schools.
“Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools. But since when did the word ‘gun’ automatically become a bad word?” LaPierre said at a midday news conference attended by hundreds of reporters.
“The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection,” said LaPierre, who did not take questions. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away or a minute away?”
The NRA’s statement, coming two days after Obama said he hoped the group would engage in “self-reflection,” helped rekindle a national debate over two starkly different approaches to curbing gun violence.
Obama said this week he supports a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, along with stricter measures to prevent criminals from obtaining firearms. The president vowed to pursue new policies in January.
NRA officials said they are seeking to shift the national conversation away from gun regulation and the influence of the firearms industry toward a new proposal that it hopes will resonate with families concerned about school safety.
LaPierre’s appearance in a windowless conference room at the Willard Hotel, where security was tight, set off a flurry of reaction after a tense week in which advocates on both sides of the issue waited for the nation’s most influential gun rights group to weigh in.
LaPierre said that Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas congressman who served as a homeland security and drug enforcement official in the George W. Bush administration, would lead an NRA-sponsored effort to examine what it would take to place armed security officers in every school under a National School Shield Program.
Grass-roots mobilization has long been the most important source of strength to the NRA, whose executives discussed their approach with national board members following the Newtown shootings. By Friday afternoon, officials were already reporting positive reaction from members.
“The outpouring of grass-roots support for this effort is immense,” said Cleta Mitchell, a Washington lawyer and NRA board member who said she participated in the discussions of the proposal for more guards in schools after talking to her sister-in-law, a preschool principal.
Liberals “always connect the wrong dots and blame the same people when their idiotic ‘solutions’ don’t solve problems,” Mitchell said. “No one bothers to ask why the Clinton assault weapons ban didn’t prevent Columbine. Same question now: Why didn’t the Connecticut gun laws prevent these killings? It is because gun laws don’t stop bad guys with guns from killing people.”
The NRA reported receiving 500 calls to its headquarters within the first hour after the news conference from local members pledging to help pursue the school safety initiative.
Obama offered no public reaction to LaPierre’s remarks. In a video posted online Friday morning, which officials said was a response to more than 400,000 people who signed online petitions supporting gun control in the past week, the president urged advocates to speak out and lobby Congress.
“If we are to succeed, it’s going to take a sustained effort of mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, law enforcement and responsible gun owners,” Obama said, “organizing, speaking up, calling on their members of Congress as many times as it takes, standing up and saying, ‘Enough’ on behalf of all our kids.”
A White House official said LaPierre’s remarks were “not confidence-inspiring in terms of what constructive role they’ll play.” The official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, was unaware of any White House contact with the gun rights group over the past week.
Democrats who support stricter gun control have been reluctant to push measures like those Obama advocates, in part because the NRA’s fierce opposition to new rules after an assault weapons ban expired in 2004 has been cited as a factor in several moderate Democrats being voted out of office.
This time might be different. Citing polling data, Democrats contend there is a growing gulf between the NRA’s 4 million members and its leaders in Washington. Members generally support a ban on military-style assault weapons, said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a Vietnam War veteran and avid hunter who is spearheading the Democratic response on Capitol Hill.
Several congressional Democrats, as well as big-city mayors, quickly denounced the NRA proposal. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), co-chairman of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns campaign, said LaPierre was offering “a paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America where everyone is armed and no place is safe.”
Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, called the NRA’s proposal “irresponsible and dangerous” and accused the group of not seriously addressing gun violence.
“Schools must be safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses,” she said in a statement.
Critics seized on LaPierre’s denunciation of violent video games — he played a clip from a game called “Kindergarten Killers” in which even students have guns — and noted that an armed guard at Columbine High School in Colorado was unable to prevent the killings there in 1999.
LaPierre was interrupted twice during his statement by anti-gun protesters, including one who held a sign reading: “NRA Killing Our Kids.” After pausing briefly during the second interruption, he shook his head but continued reading his prepared text after the protester was forcibly removed.
Highlighting the complicated politics of the gun control debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who has been talked about as a future GOP presidential nominee, said Friday that armed guards would not make classrooms safer. Meanwhile, Rep. Gene Green, a moderate Democrat from Texas who has a top rating from the NRA, said he was pleased that the group had offered suggestions.
NRA officials are scheduled to appear on the Sunday morning televised talk shows to continue making their case in public.
Peter Wallsten, Sean Sullivan and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.