Leaders of the National Rifle Association on Thursday accused gun control advocates of exploiting the deadly Florida school shooting, striking a defiant tone amid a renewed debate over guns and school safety.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, in his first public comments since the shooting in Parkland, Florida, said NRA members mourn for the Florida victims but at the same time issued a searing indictment of opponents of gun rights for attempting to "exploit tragedy for political gain."
"They hate the NRA. They hate the Second Amendment. They hate individual freedom," LaPierre said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, near the nation's capital.
LaPierre addressed the conservative activists shortly before President Donald Trump held a listening session with state and local leaders on gun safety at the White House.
The president said he had spoken to NRA leaders and expressed optimism that the nation's most prominent gun-owners organization would support his calls for raising the federal minimum age for buying or possessing certain weapons, enhancing background checks, addressing mental illness and banning the sale of bump stock devices.
NRA leaders did not address whether the federal government should raise the age limit for young adults to buy weapons. A day earlier, the organization issued a statement saying it opposes raising the age limit.
"Evil walks among us and God help us if we don't harden our schools and protect our kids," LaPierre said. "The whole idea from some of our opponents that armed security makes us less safe is completely ridiculous."
LaPierre said Democrats such as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut were eagerly blaming the NRA. He also assailed the FBI for failing to follow up on warnings about the school shooter.
"Their solution is to make you, all of you, less free," LaPierre said of gun control advocates. "They 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 added that the NRA would offer immediate services from its School Shield Program, which offers tools and resources to secure schools and train educators. LaPierre said the NRA would provide those services "absolutely free."
Schumer responded to LaPierre on Twitter, writing, "The NRA is once again spewing pathetic, out of touch ideas, blaming everything but guns. In the past, even after horrible shootings and empathetic words, President Trump and Congressional Republicans have toed the NRA line."
LaPierre's remarks come one day after President Donald Trump also outlined his suggestions for combatting mass shootings, including arming and training "weapons talented teachers," raising the age for purchasing a semi-automatic rifle to 21 and tightening the national background-check system.
After firing off a series of defenses on Twitter for his proposed reform, Trump praised LaPierre and the NRA for their "hard work," tweeting that "Wayne, Chris and the folks" are "Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"
The longtime face of the NRA was preceded on stage by the group's spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, a prominent conservative radio host. She accused media outlets of focusing heavily on school shootings involving white and affluent neighborhoods instead of those occurring in inner cities.
"Many in legacy media love mass shootings, you guys love it," Loesch said. "Now I'm not saying that you love the tragedy but I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold."
She also attacked the media organizations at the event, saying, "You can write whatever you want about me. And you can come find me in the hallways and scream at me. And you can try to confront me. But I'm here, we're here, we're not going anywhere. I call BS."
Loesch took language from Stoneman Douglas shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez, who led an impassioned call-and-response "we call BS" chant criticizing politicians who take campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association. She challenged them to stop taking money from the organization.
LaPierre also used Gonzalez's "BS" language, saying, "What's hard to understand is why no one at the FBI stood up and called BS on its rogue leadership," criticizing the agency's lack of action against the gunman.
Gonzalez responded to LaPierre's use of her words on Twitter later Thursday, writing, "Listened to your words @waynelapierrejr, and know that when I wrote #ShameOnYou in my speech, I was talking about you. The Disgust I feel for the lies you're promoting with no consequences? Unsurpassed. You have no right call BS when "thats all that ever leaves your mouth."
Loesch Wednesday night spoke at CNN's town hall event and defended the NRA against the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, including Gonzalez.