NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — In his first public remarks since last week's deadly shooting at a high school in Florida, Wayne LaPierre, leader of the National Rifle Association, told a conservative convention on Thursday that gun control advocates care more about destroying liberty than protecting kids.
"Opportunists wasted not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain," LaPierre, executive vice president of the nation's most prominent gun-rights lobbying organization, said at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
In a wide-ranging speech stocked with red meat for conservatives and attacks on Democrats, LaPierre called for increased school security, repeatedly ripped the "rogue" leadership of the FBI and blasted the left for promoting a "socialist" agenda.
Name-checking a long list of prospective Democratic 2020 presidential candidates and lawmakers like Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a leading advocate for gun control measures, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, along with the "national media," LaPierre condemned those he said were "eager to smear" the NRA.
"For them, it's not a safety issue," he said of protecting students. "It's a political issue."
Schumer quickly fired back on Twitter.
"The NRA is once again spewing pathetic, out of touch ideas, blaming everything but guns," Schumer said.
LaPierre's remarks came the day after President Donald Trump and his aides outlined plans to combat mass shootings: Tighten the national background-check system, raise the age for buying semi-automatic weapons to 21, and allow some teachers and school officials to carry firearms on campuses.
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Calling schools "wide open, soft targets for anyone bent on mass murder," LaPierre said that banks, jewelry stores, movie stars and politicians are "all more protected than our children."
"We must immediately harden our schools," he said.
But the NRA chief didn't limit himself to guns or their potential effect on school safety. LaPierre went after the FBI for failing to prevent the shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week, and blasted "corruption" within the bureau's ranks.
Those advocating for gun control in the wake of the shooting want "to sweep right under the carpet the failure of school security, the failure of family, the failure of America's mental health system, and even the unbelievable failure of the FBI," he said.
A top FBI official admitted Thursday the bureau made a mistake in not properly handling a report it had received about the Florida shooter before he attack the school. Acting FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said that while it was "a tragedy" that a tip about the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was never passed along to local investigators, the FBI is determined to fix the problem.
Shortly before LaPierre took the stage, Trump praised him and NRA staff as "Great People and Great American Patriots" on Twitter.
NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, a favorite of Tea Party activists, spoke before LaPierre and said major media organizations cover mass shootings based on race and ratings.
"Many in legacy media love mass shootings," Loesch said. "You love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold."
She went on to say that the media ignore the shooting deaths of people of color in Chicago.
LaPierre said the NRA's critics are interested only in eliminating liberty for Americans — not preventing more shootings.
"They hate the NRA. They hate the Second Amendment. They hate individual freedom," he said.
"To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun," LaPierre added.
Speaking shortly after LaPierre, Vice President Mike Pence struck a more conciliatory tone, saying Americans "mourn with those who mourn and grieve with those who grieve."
Where LaPierre warned gun control was a subversive liberal plot to enable authoritarianism, Pence praised Trump's recent call for Congress to strengthen background checks and his call to government regulators to restrict bump stocks that can speed up semi-automatic weapon fire.
Pence said he would "pray for God's wisdom that all of us in positions of authority might find a way to come together with American solutions to confront and end this evil in our time." He lamented that the aftermath of the shooting had brought "a time of too much division and too much anger in America."
Pence did not address Trump’s proposal, reiterated on Twitter Thursday morning, to train and arm teachers around the country in order to deter a "sicko shooter" from firing on students.