WASHINGTON - In his first extensive public remarks since last week's mass shooting at a Connecticut school, the head of the National Rifle Association called Friday for lawmakers to take action to put armed security guards in all schools in an effort to curb such violence.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said at a news conference in Washington.
LaPierre called on Congress "to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation." In his remarks, LaPierre suggested that guards could be drawn from a pool of qualified private citizens who would work with law enforcement officials. He offered NRA help - "free of charge" - in setting up such a program and training the guards.
Offering no new gun restriction proposals, LaPierre lashed out against violent video games and films, as well as the media's coverage of gun owners. His answer to addressing gun violence in schools was the creation of a model emergency response program in which schools can choose to participate.
The NRA's posture could set off a national debate over two starkly different views about curbing gun violence. On one side stand those like LaPierre, who believe that arming more citizens is the answer; on the other, gun-control advocates pressing for tighter restrictions. After LaPierre wrapped up his remarks, his proposal to put armed guards in schools was met with criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.
Even as he was speaking, LaPierre faced pushback. He was interrupted twice during his remarks by antigun protesters. One held up a sign that read: "NRA Killing Our Kids." After pausing briefly, he continued to speak after the protesters were removed.
"Politicians pass laws for gun-free school zones," LaPierre said. "They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And, in doing so, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk." The NRA chief took no questions.
The remarks came after a week of near-silence from the NRA following the shooting on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
People at a Newtown shopping center Friday had mixed reactions to LaPierre's proposals. Most had not heard specifics, but they were asked what they thought about the idea of stationing an armed guard at every school in America.
"I think it's probably a good idea," said one woman who declined to give her name. "Just for the obvious reasons. If someone had been there with a gun, maybe nobody would have gotten killed - except for [the gunman]."
"I liked the heckler," said Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), referring to protesters who interrupted the NRA leader. He also backed new gun laws. "Assault weapons are weapons of mass destruction."
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) called LaPierre's comments "reckless."
"It is beyond belief that following the Newtown tragedy, the National Rifle Association's leaders want to fill our communities with guns and arm more Americans," said a Lautenberg statement. "The extreme rhetoric of Wayne LaPierre and the NRA is disturbing and dangerous, and will only exacerbate America's deadly culture of gun violence."
One Republican, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, issued a statement saying he favors the idea of "a more active and permanent security presence" in schools, but that there is no "one-size-fits-all solution" and that "Mr. LaPierre's speech represented a missed opportunity to address the larger issues we face as a nation. We must have a serious conversation about constitutional rights, but we must also take a hard look at the culture in which we are raising our children."
Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County lawmaker whose reelection bid this year was boosted by NRA support, said there is a "clear need" to address behavioral health problems and to "keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people," but his 246-word statement did not endorse any specific proposals. Instead, he said all options should be on the table. Fitzpatrick, through a spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether he would back a ban on assault weapons.
Democrats, on the other hand, blasted LaPierre's statement and continued their push for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and for more comprehensive background checks.
Pointing to LaPierre's contention that the glorification of violence in the media and popular culture is to blame for shootings, Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz said: "They're a part of that."
"The idea of more guns in our schools is not the answer to assuring that our children are safe from gun violence," said Schwartz, a Montgomery County Democrat.
On Friday morning, President Obama released a Web video urging the public to assist in the push for new regulations. Petitions on the White House website aimed at pressing the administration to take action on gun control have attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures.
To view the White House position on gun violence, go to philly.com/wethepeopleEndText