Gun lobby chief slams 'politicization' of Florida school shooting

By AFP/Andrew Beatty   February 22, 2018 | 04:48 pm PT
Gun lobby chief slams 'politicization' of Florida school shooting
The National Rifle Association's (NRA) Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre speaks during the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland on February 22, 2018. Photo by AFP/Jim Watson
National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre hit back at what he called 'the shameful politicization of tragedy.'

America's powerful gun industry on Thursday accused its critics of exploiting a deadly school shooting in Florida for political gain, as President Donald Trump watered down demands for tougher regulation with a deeply controversial call to arm teachers.

National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre hit back at what he called "the shameful politicization of tragedy," fighting a rearguard defense against street protests and mounting demands to tighten America's permissive gun laws.

In his first public comments since the Valentine's Day rampage that left 17 dead in a Florida high school, LaPierre reiterated long-standing accusations that gun control advocates were seeking to roll back the constitutional right to bear arms.

"It's a classic strategy right out of the playbook of a poisonous movement," he told an annual conservative conference outside Washington, hitting out at supposed "socialists" on the political left, and at the "so-called national news media."

"For them, it's not a safety issue, it's a political issue," he charged. "They hate the NRA. They hate the Second Amendment. They hate individual freedom."

He also doubled down on the NRA's longstanding position that armed Americans were the first line of defense in confronting deadly attacks, saying: "To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun."

The NRA's cause received a significant boost when Trump - in his second meeting at the White House on school safety in as many days - doubled down on a plan to respond to the Parkland carnage by putting more guns in schools.

He declared "gun free" schools a "magnet" for mass shooters and proposed bonuses for teachers who are willing to carry concealed firearms.

Trump had earlier proposed raising from 18 to 21 the minimum age to buy more guns than at present - like the assault-style rifle used by 19-year-old Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz - and making it more difficult for the mentally ill to own firearms.

Currently under federal law, anyone 18 or over can buy a gun from a private, unlicensed seller, although a handful of states have set the minimum age at 21.

Those measures, which may struggle to pass the Republican-controlled Congress, could have put him at odds with the NRA, which donated to and endorsed his campaign.

"I really think the NRA wants to do what's right," Trump said. "I mean, they're very close to me, I'm very close to them, they're very, very great people. They love this country. They're patriots."

Teachers warn of 'arms race' in schools

Trump insisted he was not advocating arming every American teacher, but only those with "military or special training" - suggesting that would be around 20 percent.

That would mean weapons for around 700,000 educators, a potentially massive business opportunity for gun manufacturers.

"A gun-free zone to a killer or somebody who wants to be a killer, that's like going in for the ice cream," he said. "That's like, 'Here I am, take me.'"

"In my opinion, you won't have these shootings. Because these people are cowards. They're not going to walk into a school if 20 percent of the teachers have guns. It may be 10 percent, it may be 40 percent."

Teachers' unions were quick to condemn his proposal, with the American Federation of Teachers claiming Trump was in favor of an "arms race" that would "turn schools into militarized fortresses."

"Anyone who wants guns in schools has no understanding of what goes on inside them - or worse, doesn't care," the union's president Randi Weingarten said.

Summing up the opposition of many lawmakers, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal called the idea of arming teachers "toxic lunacy - an NRA-backed distraction from common sense action.

"Arming teachers is inane and insane - a sure path to reckless and panicky shooting, gun theft, and other deadly dangers. A non-starter in the Senate."

'Mood to finally do something'

On Wednesday, Trump heard wrenching first-hand accounts from bereaved parents and friends, and teens from Parkland who narrowly escaped with their own lives on February 14.

The US Congress has long been deadlocked on the gun debate, accomplishing nothing despite a spate of mass shootings and polls showing that Americans support stricter gun laws by a two-to-one margin.

According to a Gallup tracking poll, 60 percent of Americans now favor tougher gun sale laws.

Trump has also advocated banning devices that clip on to the back end of a rifle and harness the gun's recoil, essentially turning a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic one.

"Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks!" he tweeted earlier Thursday.

"Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!"

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