The head of the biggest gun lobby in the US has accused Democrats of pushing a "socialist" agenda to deprive gun owners of their weapons, in an uncompromising speech just a week after 17 people died in the Florida school shooting.
Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, made no attempt to moderate his message a day after survivors of the Parkland shooting faced down lawmakers in a CNN debate and at the White House. Instead, he told conservative activists that voters should be "frightened" of any future Democrat election victories, and accused Democrats of exploiting the deaths in an effort to destroy the Second Amendment.
"Socialism is a movement that loves a smear," he said.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservatives outside Washington, LaPierre warned Democrats would use the tragedy to push an agenda that went beyond gun control. "What they want is more restrictions on the law-abiding," LaPierre said. "They want to sweep right under the carpet the failure of school security."
Staring out into the audience, LaPierre told them "you should be anxious and you should be frightened" about the potential of another Democratic takeover of the House, Senate and White House.
"If they seize power ... our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever," he said. "The first to go will be the Second Amendment."
LaPierre spent a significant portion of his remarks warning against the expansion of socialist political ideas, despite the fact that Republicans control both chambers in Congress and the White House, and the suggestion by President Donald Trump Thursday morning that he's open to gun reforms opposed by the NRA.
He called out rising-star Democratic lawmakers -- many of them potential candidates for the 2010 presidential election -- by name. He criticized independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and other high-profile Democrats, whom he accused of backing European style socialism as well creating new victimized groups and hurling insults at conservatives.
In the aftermath of a high school shooting that left 17 dead, the country has found itself once again balancing the scope of the Second Amendment with its desire to protect children in schools. LaPierre has been a deeply polarizing figure as an outspoken and consistent advocate for gun rights, who has previously been among the public figures to voice the NRA's position in the wake of mass shootings.
Once again LaPierre repeated his calls for schools to increase security, even arming schoolteachers, a controversial proposal that even some Republicans have rejected.
LaPierre said the NRA will provide support and guidance on how schools can protect themselves free of charge. He argued that was "more" than the Democratic Party or news organizations were doing.
"We share a goal of safe schools, safe neighborhoods and a safe country," LaPierre said, and warned that "evil walks among us."
He also returned to an oft-used NRA slogan, one LaPierre invoked following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 students and six adults dead,"To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun."
Contrast with Rubio
LaPierre's speech comes just a day after Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has an A+ rating from the NRA, announced he was opposed to arming teachers and was in favor of raising the age limit from 18 to 21 on individuals purchasing semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15. Rubio also told the audience he was reconsidering his past opposition to limiting the size of large gun magazines.
"I absolutely believe that in this country if you are 18 years of age, you should not be able to buy a rifle, and I will support a law that takes that right away," Rubio said, making the comments during a CNN town hall in Florida.
Limiting the size of gun magazines and raising the age limit on buying rifles, including guns like AR-15 style rifles, are both positions that the NRA opposes.
The NRA was represented at the town hall Wednesday night by the organization's national spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, who faced sharply critical comments from Parkland shooting survivors and family members of shooting victims.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump hosted students and parents at the White House for a raw, televised listening session. By Thursday morning, Trump tweeted he was committed to pushing for comprehensive background checks and limiting the age of those buying assault-style weapons.
"I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!"
A cornerstone of LaPierre's speech centered around the fact that the NRA says they've worked to try and fix the country's background check system by encouraging lawmakers to fight to incentivize states to enter records into the National Criminal Background Checks system.
"When you hear politicians who won't fix the broken system talk about expanding it, don't buy it," LaPierre said in a pre-recorded video.
The comment came after Trump suggested on Twitter he wanted to overhaul the background checks system.
LaPierre didn't directly address Trump's tweets or positions in his speech.
Just minutes before LaPierre was scheduled to speak, however, Trump defended the NRA.
"What many people don't understand, or don't want to understand, is that Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!" Trump tweeted.
This story has been updated.