By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hours before President Barack Obama revealed his plan to decrease gun-related violence, the nation's leading gun-rights group took its opposition to a personal level by releasing a video ad that refers to Obama's two school-aged daughters.
The ad released by the National Rifle Association, which advocated putting armed guards in schools after the December 14 massacre of 26 people in a Connecticut school last month, casts the president as elitist and hypocritical for wanting schools to be gun-free zones.
"Are the president's kids more important than yours?" a narrator says in the 35-second television and Internet spot. "Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he's just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security."
Obama's daughters, 14-year-old Malia and 11-year-old Sasha, attend private school in Washington and receive Secret Service protection.
The ad, posted online Tuesday, provoked widespread outrage, with a president's children considered inappropriate targets in a political fight.
"The NRA has struck an incredible new low in public discourse and that ad must be removed immediately," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter at a hearing organized by Democrats in the House of Representatives.
"The NRA's sneering references to the president's family are beyond the pale," conservative author David Frum wrote in The Daily Beast.
Former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs called the spot "disgusting on so many levels."
On Wednesday, the White House joined the condemnation.
"Most Americans agree that a president's children should not be used as pawns in a political fight," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "But to go so far as to make the safety of the president's children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly."
The NRA objected to the criticism.
"We didn't name the president's daughters," NRA President David Keene told the National Review. "We didn't criticize them. What we said is that these are people who think that their families deserve protection that yours don't."
'WHAT'S WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?'
The ad's tone and personal nature -- striking even in a capital city used to bitter political divisions -- reflected the cultural gulf that divides the sides in the debate over the limits of the constitutional right to bear arms.
Since the killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last month, Obama's administration has put together a broad response that includes a call to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons and enhanced background checks for prospective gun buyers.
In recent years, the NRA's ability to prevent such measures from even being proposed was a sign of its lobbying influence in Washington. The NRA and its allies - including gun makers - are frequent donors to the campaigns of Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.
But the calls for gun restrictions in light of Sandy Hook are creating an appetite for gun legislation in Congress, and putting new pressure on the NRA. Some critics of the group say that messages such as the one mentioning Obama's children could alienate some gun owners from the NRA's hard-line stance.
"What's wrong with these people?" Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show and a former Republican congressman from Florida. He added that the NRA could make itself increasingly irrelevant and on the fringe of political debate with such tactics.
Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, defended the NRA ad during an appearance on Fox News.
"I think the ad is spot on. It points to the hypocrisy that we see so much from our ruling class," Pratt said. "This is a serious confrontation. The president seems to be convinced that the American people don't need to be able to protect themselves."
After Obama announced his proposals, the NRA released a statement that took a more conciliatory stand.
"Throughout its history, the National Rifle Association has led efforts to promote safety and responsible gun ownership. Keeping our children and society safe remains our top priority," the group said.
DEBATE OVER SCHOOL GUARDS
The Democratic survey group Public Policy Polling found in a poll released last week that the gun lobby's approval rating had dropped by 10 percentage points after a forceful speech given by the group's executive director, Wayne LaPierre.
But the NRA says that its sharp-edged approach has boosted its popularity among gun owners. The group said its membership has grown by 100,000, to 4.2 million people, since the Connecticut shootings.
Another survey, released on Monday by the Pew Research Center, found that most Americans -- 64 percent -- favor putting armed guards or police officers in more schools.
Obama's plan announced on Wednesday calls for more police "resource officers" in schools, but not the armed guards the NRA suggests.
"I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools," Obama said recently on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And I think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow is going to solve our problem."
The White House itself put a spotlight on children on Wednesday by including four youths on the stage where Obama spoke about his gun proposals.
Each child had written letters encouraging the president to end gun violence, and Obama quoted from two of the letters.
The new NRA ad is called "Stand and Fight," and promotes the guards-in-schools idea that has been at the center of the group's response to the shootings in Connecticut.
The ad is airing on the Sportsman Channel, a cable network, but likely will have a much larger viewership on news stations and the Internet.
The NRA also said it would produce a nightly cable talk show hosted by gun advocate Cam Edwards on the Sportsman Channel.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle. Editing by David Lindsey and Doina Chiacu)