Gun activists go on offensive at major conservative conference

Gun activists go on offensive at major conservative conference
© Greg Nash

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The National Rifle Association (NRA) and many Second Amendment advocates mostly stayed silent in the week following the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Not anymore.

At a major gathering of conservatives here Thursday, the NRA and many of its loyal members went on the offensive, railing against fresh efforts to pass gun control measures in the wake of the Parkland shooting that took the lives of 17 high school students and faculty members.

“Never forget these words: To stop a bad guy with a gun it takes a good guy with a gun,” NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). 

LaPierre’s appearance near the start of the three-day conference was no coincidence. It followed a panel where one guest blasted CNN’s Wednesday town hall in Parkland on gun violence as a “Trotskyite show trial,” as well as a fiery speech by NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, who blasted the FBI for failing to heed warning signs before Parkland and the media for exploiting such tragedies.

Kicking off CPAC with Loesch and LaPierre sent an undeniable message. Conservatives are raring for a fight over gun rights, and the backlash to the Parkland shooting has only hardened their resolve.

“If you are just going to sit there and spread lies and say someone like me who is an NRA member is a baby killer or a mass murderer, or I have blood on my hands, that’s offensive to me,” said a CPAC attendee from Ohio named Amy, who asked that her last name not be published. “Everyone I know is a responsible gun owner.”

Gun violence has taken center stage since last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just outside of Boca Raton. There, a 19-year-old former student is charged in the deaths of 17 people while armed with an AR-15 rifle.

The NRA followed its typical strategy after a high-profile shooting, remaining quiet in the days immediately after the attack. But teenage survivors and the parents of victims took to the airwaves to call for gun restrictions like banning high-capacity magazines and certain rifles, as well as strengthening background checks, keeping up attention on the issue.

The Florida shooting has inspired student walkouts at high schools across the country in protest of gun violence. And student leaders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have planned a “March for Our Lives” in Washington on March 24.

But the powerful gun lobby has begun inching back out into the public eye.

Loesch, a popular conservative pundit and the face of NRA TV, attended CNN’s Wednesday town hall in Florida with members of the Parkland community. At the event, she said the organization would support changes to shore up a “flawed” background check system, but pushed back against the idea that further gun restrictions are appropriate.

But CPAC marked a pivot to a far more aggressive strategy. 

Loesch threw red meat to the CPAC crowd. She accused the media of loving mass shootings for the ratings (“crying white mothers are ratings gold to you"), and accused the left of "gaslighting" gun owners into "thinking we are responsible for a tragedy that we had nothing to do with." 

Matt Schlapp, the chairman of CPAC’s host, the American Conservative Union, insisted that people shouldn’t read too much into the fact that two top NRA leaders spoke first at this year’s gathering.

“No, that schedule was set weeks ago,” Schlapp told reporters. “Wayne LaPierre is my friend, Dana is my friend. …. Nobody can deny that Wayne is going to be an important voice in all of this. He's a leader that a lot of the country looks up to on Second Amendment questions.”

NRA member Greg Penglis, a conservative talk radio host with WEBY-AM in Pensacola, Fla., said he feels for the student victims of the Parkland shooting in his state. But he also thinks that many of them are being used by gun control groups to “blur the line between the murderer and the honest, law abiding gun owner.”

“Those kids, who’s paying for this? Who’s gotten to these kids? Who’s trying to use them for their own purposes?” Penglis said after the LaPierre speech. “They wouldn’t get this much publicity if there wasn’t a gun control agenda behind it.”

Ivan Raiklin, a father of two and former intelligence officer who’s running for the GOP nomination to face Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineBill to bolster gun background checks gains enough support to break filibuster Senators demand cyber deterrence strategy from Trump Two-year defense spending smooths the way to a ready military MORE (D-Va.), said more dialogue is needed to find ways to keep kids safe in schools. But he said he’s absolutely “rigid” when it comes to protecting the Second Amendment and the Constitution.

“Because of one person’s actions which had a massive, devastating effect on 17 Americans, does that outweigh the 330 million other Americans that have the ability to protect themselves in their homes?” Raiklin told The Hill. “More people die in car accidents — a car is used to create massive death, more so than these incidents.”

The appearances by NRA leaders at CPAC came on the same day President TrumpDonald John TrumpKoch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp Anti-abortion Dem wins primary fight Lipinski holds slim lead in tough Illinois primary fight MORE took to Twitter to signal he would be pushing for a trio of new gun control policies: a ban on so-called bump stock devices which allow a gun to be fired more quickly; strengthened background checks for firearms purchases; and increasing the age restriction from 18 to 21 for those purchasing certain rifles.

While CPAC attendees gave standing ovations to Loesch and LaPierre, several agreed with Trump that changing the age restriction was reasonable.

“Waiting ‘til you’re 21 is sometimes not a bad thing. You can’t drink ‘til you’re 21,” Amy, the attendee, said.

And among the hundreds of young people at CPAC, the Parkland school shooting has jump-started a debate about which firearms should be legal.

Jake Clark, 19, a freshman at Ohio State University, said stricter gun laws would do little to stop mass shootings. Chicago, he said, has tough gun laws, but also one of the highest murder rates in the nation.

But Clark, a gun owner, said he believes the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle should be eradicated.

“Nobody should have access to AR-15s. That’s like literally a military weapon,” Clark said. “I understand handguns, shotguns, but an AR-15 … you can make them fully automatic.”

But his friend and OSU classmate, Austin Stewart, also 19, said getting rid of AR-15s wouldn’t solve the problem. 

“I don’t think it’s a weapons issue. I think it’s cultural,” he said. “We should study what causes the pattern” of mass shootings.