— -- National Rifle Association vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday just over a week after a deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida galvanized a national conversation on gun policy reform.
In a highly anticipated speech, he made the case that there is room for the gun lobby and gun control advocates to find common ground.
"The NRA does care," he told the gathering at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland.
In a speech to a pro-Trump and pro-gun rights crowd, LaPierre defended the Second Amendment against what he called "new European socialists" looking to seize control of Congress and the White House.
"Our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever," he said. "And the first to go will be the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution."
LaPierre's appearance at the conference comes eight days after one of the most deadly school shootings in American history took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — a gun spree that left 17 dead and 14 injured. The suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, allegedly used a legally purchased type of AR-15 to carry out the attack.
The subsequent backlash and campaign for change, led largely by student survivors of the mass shooting, has focused, in part, squarely on the gun lobby as a roadblock to substantive reforms.
LaPierre focused on lawmakers critical of the gun lobby and members of the mainstream media as the beneficiaries of the heated debate over gun policy.
"Chris Murphy, Nancy Pelosi, and more, cheered on by the national media, eager to blame the NRA and call for even more government control. They hate the NRA. They hate the Second Amendment. They hate individual freedom," he said. "In the rush of calls for more government, they also revealed their true selves. The elites don't care, not one whit about America's school system. And school children. If they truly cared, what they would do is they would protect them, for them, it is not a safety issue. It is a political issue."
LaPierre also called out systemic and societal “failures” that form a complicated web of issues that make gun policy reform a difficult task.
“They 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,” LaPierre said of those calling for increased gun restrictions.
LaPierre said his organization has the best interests of the nations' students and teachers at heart in the call to arm school staffers adding, “to stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.”
“The whole idea from some of our opponents that armed security makes us less safe is completely ridiculous,” LaPierre said. “If that's true, and just think about this, if that's true, armed security makes us less safe, let's just go ahead and remove it from everywhere. Let's remove it from the White House, from Capitol Hill, and remove it from all of Hollywood.”
He offered the NRA’s School Shield programs assistance “absolutely free to any school in America."
“I refuse to leave this stage until I say one more time that we must immediately harden our schools every day,” LaPierre said. “Every day young children are being dropped off at schools that are virtually wide-open soft targets for any one bent on mass murder."
In many ways, Pierre's comments echoed President Donald Trump's during a listening session on Wednesday with people who’ve been affected by mass shootings, including families who lost children in the Parkland shooting.
At the White House meeting, the president suggested that he’s open to possibly arming teachers.
“It would be called conceal carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them, they would go for special training,” Trump said. “And they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone. Gun-free zone to a maniac is let's go in and let's attack.”
The president is set to meet Thursday with state and local officials, largely from schools and in law enforcement, to wade further into school safety.