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NRA bashes liberals while victims plead for change in America's split-screen moment

A week after the latest massacre that traumatized America, the political dimensions of the new fight for gun law refo...

Posted: Feb 23, 2018 1:05 AM
Updated: Feb 23, 2018 1:05 AM

A week after the latest massacre that traumatized America, the political dimensions of the new fight for gun law reform are now clear.

On one side is the National Rifle Association, which came out swinging Wednesday with an inflammatory speech by its chief, Wayne LaPierre, who branded those who want tighter gun laws as freedom-hating "European-style" socialists and tragedy opportunists.

On the other are the students from the Florida high school who hid in closets as carnage was unleashed, and whose campaign, so far uncorrupted by tortured partisanship, is a powerful new force in American politics.

In between them are the nation's GOP politicians, such as President Donald Trump and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, caught in a whirl of emotion and anger and struggling to adapt to a shifting debate that is challenging monolithic positions on guns.

Lying in wait are the roadblocks of Congress, which have been impervious to emotional uprisings provoked by previous tragedies and where Republican lawmakers and red state Democrats often balk at high-risk votes.

Still, the sustained power of the national movement that emerged after the killings of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School feels different.

Perhaps, unlike after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Charleston and Las Vegas, a moment of national change is at hand that could spur major political reforms to stop such tragedies happening again.

"I told my wife several days ago ... that it just feels like something is different about this school shooting than any of the others. I am optimistic that there will be some changes," Darrell Scott, whose daughter Rachel was killed in the 1999 Columbine high school massacre in Colorado, told CNN's Don Lemon.

The energy for change burst out of an emotionally raw CNN town hall meeting in Florida on Wednesday night, and a moving event at the White House where Trump, the most pro-gun President in modern history, watched survivors and relatives of the dead tell of the horror in Florida and issue wrenching pleas for action.

Blaming everything but guns

But the forces in politics and society pressing toward the usual inertia remain strong, personified by LaPierre's speech and other remarks by officials in the NRA, which wields significant influence in Republican politics.

The organization's spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, who took part in the CNN town hall, for instance, said Thursday that "many in legacy media love mass shootings" because "crying white mothers are ratings gold."

In a conspiracy-laced tirade at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, LaPierre signaled that the NRA would make no concessions.

In a culture war screed, he blamed everything but guns for last week's massacre, lashing out at former President Barack Obama, elites, the Democratic Party, Hollywood, the media, the intelligence community and educational institutions, portraying calls for gun control as a shield for government tyranny.

"We do live in the socialistic age of the art of the smear," LaPierre said. "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's attack on the FBI and oblique references to the Russia investigation appeared a signal to Trump to remember his true friends, amid signs the President is ready to reject several NRA positions on gun control.

The vehemence of his remarks might also be a sign that even the NRA is under pressure. LaPierre's assault on Democrats was interesting since the organization has often sought strong ties with moderates from the party.

Thirteen months into his presidency, Trump can still surprise.

"The man listened. He clearly was affected," Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat, said Thursday on CNN.

A day after his listening session, Trump convened another meeting on school safety.

"A lot of things are happening," he said. "There's a tremendous feeling that we want to get something done."

There are signs, however, that the President, who often boasts he saved the Second Amendment by winning the election, is searching for a middle way that satisfies demands for change but does not alienate his conservative base.

He has signaled he favors raising the age at which someone can buy semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21, wants expanded background checks and is ready to prohibit bump fire stocks, which can make semiautomatic weapons fire rounds more rapidly.

Reform advocates have welcomed such steps but warn they do not go far enough.

Trump also renewed his call Thursday for 20% of teachers to be armed, a key NRA priority.

In keeping with his combative character and perhaps with an eye to the views of Americans away from the liberal coastal belts, Trump believes that offense -- in the form of more guns -- is the key to keeping kids safe, rather than measures like banning assault weapons.

"We have to harden those schools, not soften them. A gun-free zone, to a killer, or somebody that wants to be a killer, that's like going in for the ice cream. That's like saying, 'Here I am, take me,' " Trump said.

The President also went out of his way to praise LaPierre, before a speech that is likely to go down well with Trump's base but could strike those with more moderate political opinions as deeply divisive.

And he downplayed the idea that he would confront the powerful gun lobby group.

"I don't think I'll be going up against them. They're going to do what's right. They're very close to me. I'm close to them," Trump told reporters.

Trump could win or lose this one

There are political perils and opportunities for the President in the guns debate -- especially after his televised listening session on Wednesday.

"I think he is in a position where he is actually going to have to do something about it," David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama, said Wednesday on CNN.

"Now he has to choose between his patrons and his duty as President and the country. This is a really, really big political moment for him. ... I think there are political consequences here," Axelrod said on CNN's "The Situation Room."

By leading national debate and enacting change, Trump could mobilize the presidency and unify the country in a way that he has been unable to do before -- and perhaps win kudos from disgruntled moderate voters important to the GOP in the midterm election.

"There was going to be a moment that only he could rise up as someone who is so strongly supportive of the Second Amendment and of the NRA," Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign senior adviser, said on CNN. "He can sit people down at the table on both sides of the issue and come to a compromise."

But such an approach will require Trump to challenge his political base -- a step he's been unwilling to take on other issues, like immigration. His other legislative efforts, on tax reform, saw him let congressional leaders take charge. That will not cut it here -- changes to gun laws will require the President to offer cover to lawmakers during primary season, when they fear challenges from the right -- funded by the NRA.

One little-noticed factor in the outpouring of emotion that will become increasingly important when lawmakers get back to work next week is Congress.

Rubio suggested on Wednesday that he would seek to use the principle of unanimous consent in the Senate to enforce action as soon as Monday.

"I believe there are 60 votes to ban bump stocks. I believe that we could potentially have 60 votes at the federal level to change the age from 18 to 21 on the purchase of any rifles," Rubio said at the town hall.

He also said he was considering changing his opposition to banning high capacity magazines that magnify the carnage of mass shooters, another sign of potentially evolving sentiment on guns.

It remains unclear, however, whether other GOP senators in rural America far from Florida are feeling the heat Rubio faces in his home state.

One key figure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has so far offered no sign that he is ready to act speedily on gun control.

And anything the Senate passes would have to make it through the Republican-led House, home to Republican lawmakers more beholden to Trump's base than some of their counterparts in the Senate.

It's also unclear whether Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, is keen to expose his colleagues running for re-election in states Trump won in 2016 to a long series of gun votes.

The coming struggle will match the zeal of the Florida school kids against the entrenched forces of the NRA and congressional delay.

For once, it at least looks like a fair fight.

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