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NRA offensive exposes deep U.S. divisions on guns

CEO of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre reacts during the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting a
CEO of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre reacts during the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting a

By David Ingram and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Any chance for national unity on U.S. gun violence appeared to wane a week after the Connecticut school massacre, as the powerful NRA gun rights lobby called on Friday for armed guards in every school and gun-control advocates vehemently rejected the proposal.

The solution offered by the National Rifle Association defied a push by President Barack Obama for new gun laws, such as bans on high-capacity magazines and certain semiautomatic rifles.

At a hotel near the White House, NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre said a debate among lawmakers would be long and ineffective, and that school children were better served by immediate action to send officers with firearms into schools.

LaPierre delivered an impassioned defense of the firearms that millions of Americans own, in a rare NRA news briefing after the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting in which a gunman killed his mother, and then 20 children and six adults at an elementary school.

"Why is the idea of a gun good when it's used to protect our president or our country or our police, but bad when it's used to protect our children in their schools?" LaPierre asked in comments twice interrupted by anti-NRA protesters whom guards forced from the room.

Speaking to about 200 reporters and editors but taking no questions, LaPierre dared politicians to oppose armed guards.

"Is the press and political class here in Washington so consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA and America's gun owners," he asked, "that you're willing to accept a world where real resistance to evil monsters is a lone, unarmed school principal?"

Proponents of gun control immediately rejected the idea, hardening battle lines in a social debate that divides Americans as much as abortion or same-sex marriage.

A brief NRA statement three days earlier in which the group said it wanted to contribute meaningfully to ways to prevent school massacres led to speculation that compromise might be possible, or that the NRA was too weak to defeat new legislation.

"The NRA's leadership had an opportunity to help unite the nation behind efforts to reduce gun violence and avert massacres like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School," said Democratic Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York. She supports new limits on ammunition and firearms, and universal background checks for gun buyers.

WAITING FOR A COMPROMISE

Adam Winkler, author of "Gunfight," a history of U.S. gun rights, said he expected the NRA might yield on background checks. About 40 percent of gun purchasers are not checked, according to some estimates.

"The NRA missed a huge opportunity to move in the direction of compromise. Instead of offering a major contribution to the gun debate, which is what they promised, we got the same old tired clichés," said Winkler, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Monday showed the percentage of Americans favoring tough gun regulations rising 8 points after the Newtown shooting, to 50 percent.

Inside the NRA, though, attitudes might not change much.

"The anti-gun forces which are motivated by hysteria and a refusal to deal with the facts are going to be facing a counter-attack here that is going to be very, very effective," said Robert Brown, an NRA board member and the publisher of Soldier of Fortune, a military-focused magazine.

During the news conference, LaPierre laid out a plan for a "National School Shield" and said former U.S. congressman Asa Hutchinson from Arkansas would head up the NRA's effort to develop a model security program for schools.

The NRA is far and away America's most powerful gun organization and dwarves other groups with its lobbying efforts. In 2011, it spent $3.1 million lobbying lawmakers and federal agencies, while all gun-control groups combined spent $280,000, according to records the groups filed with Congress.

ECHOES OF COLUMBINE

Ken Blackwell, another NRA board member, said NRA leaders were discussing how to react to the Newtown shooting on the day it happened, helping LaPierre formulate a position.

"He and the team of lawyers around him are very bright and they understand the Constitution," said Blackwell, a Republican former state official in Ohio.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in 2008 guarantees an individual right to own firearms, though it allows for some limits.

While LaPierre's proposal to arm schools came as a surprise to those who hoped for compromise, it is not new.

Former NRA president, the late actor Charlton Heston, made a similar proposal after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre near Denver that killed 12 students and one teacher.

"If there had been even one armed guard in the school, he could have saved a lot of lives and perhaps ended the whole thing instantly," Heston said in April 1999, according to The New York Times.

Columbine had an armed sheriff's deputy who exchanged gunfire outside the school with one of the two teenage killers, according to a Jefferson County, Colorado, sheriff's office report. The deputy was unable to hit or stop the student, who was armed with a semiautomatic rifle, from entering the school, and the deputy stayed in a parking lot with police, the report said.

Protesters at the news briefing on Friday accused the NRA of being complicit in gun deaths.

"If teachers can stand up to gunmen, Congress can stand up to the NRA," said Medea Benjamin, co-director of the peace group Code Pink, who was escorted from the news conference.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Patrick Rucker and Alina Selyukh in Washington, and Stephanie Simon and Keith Coffman in Denver, Colorado; Editing by Karey Wutkowski, Mary Milliken and Eric Beech)

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