NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. ― The National Rifle Association usually maintains a large presence at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual political confab that draws thousands of conservative activists from across the country.
Some speculated, though, that the nation’s most powerful gun lobby would lower its visibility at this year’s CPAC, which began Thursday, given that a gunman armed with an assault-style rifle murdered 17 people last week at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
Whenever a mass shooting occurs, for example, the NRA goes quiet. And no officials from the gun lobby appeared on a publicly released schedule of CPAC speakers online ― a curious omission for an organization that pays for top billing at the gathering.
But after NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch was jeered by thousands of people over gun control at a CNN-sponsored town hall on Wednesday in Florida, she and the top NRA official not only appeared at CPAC Thursday, but they went on the attack ― blasting Democrats, the media, and the FBI over its failure to act on tips that may have stopped the shooter in Parkland.
“The shameful politicization of tragedy — it’s a classic strategy, right out of the playbook of a poisonous movement”
“Each and every member of the National Rifle Association mourns the loss of the innocent,” NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said in a speech that was carried live by all three major cable news channels. But he quickly added that “opportunists wasted not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain.”
LaPierre warned that growing calls from students for stricter gun laws would lead to a European-style “socialist wave” that would strip law-abiding citizens of their firearms.
Referring to politicians who back stricter gun laws, he said, “They hide behind labels like Democrat, left-wing, and progressive to make their socialist agenda more palatable, and that is terrifying.”
“The shameful politicization of tragedy — it’s a classic strategy, right out of the playbook of a poisonous movement,” he said.
Those pushing for more gun control in the wake of the Parkland massacre, he said, “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 also took a clear swipe at the FBI over the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, saying, “What is hard to understand is why no one at the FBI stood up and called B.S. on its rogue leadership. I mean, really, where was the systemic resistance?”
“Many in legacy media love mass shootings”
Loesch took aim at a different target in her speech.
“Many in legacy media love mass shootings,” Loesch claimed to a standing ovation. “I’m not saying you love the tragedy, but you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold.”
Her comments echoed a video that NRA-TV released Wednesday, which slammed the mainstream media for being the “casting call for the next mass shooting.”
In a sign of the NRA’s status among conservatives, the group received two top speaking slots ― LaPierre and Loesch addressed attendees immediately prior to Vice President Mike Pence.
The gun lobby’s outsized influence also was evident in the halls of Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, the massive complex that has hosted CPAC in recent years and where conservative stars like Ben Shapiro and Sebastian Gorka mix and mingle with selfie-seeking students and other activists. The NRA occupies the largest space among exhibitors at the event. It even offers a range simulator where attendees can practice shooting firearms.
But while the NRA officials resisted the prospect of additional laws regulating firearms, congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump were entertaining other ideas ― a sign that political pressure for bigger changes is building in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
Trump on Thursday met with state and local officials at the White House to discuss solutions to address gun violence. The president reiterated his support for raising the age when Americans can buy assault weapons such as the AR-15. The 19-year-old charged in the Parkland shooting was able to purchase an AR-15 rifle in Florida.
“It should all be at 21,” Trump said at an event at the White House. “And the NRA will back it.”
“They’re very close to me. I’m close to them. The NRA wants to do the right thing,” Trump claimed. “I’ve spoken to them often in the last two days. It’s not a battle — I think the NRA wants to do the right thing.”
Raising the minimum age for purchasing assault weapons could gain momentum in Congress. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Roberts of Kansas have expressed interest in the proposal this week.
“Certainly nobody under 21 should have an AR-15,” Roberts said Thursday.
Some CPAC attendees who support gun rights agreed.
“I think raising the age is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing,” Marie Zare, a New York commercial real estate broker, said.
Zare, who recently obtained a gun permit for the first time, said she would also support arming some teachers in schools, another of Trump’s proposals.
“We have, what, 340 million guns in this country?” Zare said. “You’re not getting rid of them. They’re not going away.”