Responding to last week's massacre in a Connecticut elementary school, the nation's largest gun lobby Friday broke its silence and offered an immediately controversial solution to curb gun violence by calling on the federal government to pay for armed police officers in every school.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's executive vice president, said in a 30-minute news conference in Washington, D.C.
"I call on Congress today to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation and to do it now, to make sure that blanket of safety is in place when our kids return to school in January."
The NRA was emphatic in stating its desire to stock the nation's halls of learning with armed security -- and its belief that doing so would have made a critical difference at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
But just as loud and clear was an assortment of Pennsylvania politicians, educators and anti-violence activists who rejected the notion as out of step, irresponsible and narrow-minded.
"I think the NRA is completely out of touch with the sentiment in America and Pennsylvania," said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, an anti-gun violence group.
"Their solution that the answer to the problem is more guns especially in our schools seems so out of step with what people are talking about that, frankly, I can't believe this is what they came out with and did at a national press conference."
Reaction to Mr. LaPierre's words was sharp, swift and divided, reflecting the deep schism in the country about the merits of increased regulation versus increased proliferation.
Daniel Gross, president of The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence likewise said, "What was said today is not indicative of the conversation the American public wants to have."
"This is both irresponsible and dangerous," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "Schools must be safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses."
But Michael LaPorte, a Pittsburgh police sergeant and president of the police union, embraced the idea of armed law enforcement officers in schools.
"I would feel very comfortable with a trained professional police officer at my son's school, my daughter's school, absolutely," Sgt. LaPorte said. "A trained police officer would be the first line of defense to put a stop to that hideous killing that occurred. Who knows what would have been prevented, how many lives could have been saved?"
"Every school should have armed security because you never know where these psychopaths are going to manifest themselves," said Kim Stolfer, legislative chairman of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League, with 21,000 members.
Mr. Stolfer said his group has lobbied state and federal legislators for years to add armed, trained security in schools, and he termed the NRA's announcement overdue.
"An unarmed security guard is nothing more than a target with two legs," Mr. Stolfer said. But an armed guard, he added, "that would present a line of defense against the evil that some in our society demonstrate."
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, likened the NRA's stance to an "arms race" and continued to push for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a strengthening of background checks and an increase in penalties against straw purchasers.
"NRA officials today blamed everyone but themselves for the conditions that permitted the monstrous attack on the children and teachers in Sandy Hook Elementary School. They said that gun laws don't work and that pursuing legislation is a waste of time. They proposed instead the equivalent of an arms race," Mr. Nutter said in a statement.
During the NRA news conference, which was twice interrupted by protesters who were forcibly removed, Mr. LaPierre raged against politicians and the media for demonizing guns and their owners while Hollywood, music videos and video game makers glorify gun violence.
He rhetorically asked how many more Adam Lanza "copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame."
Mr. LaPierre lambasted makers of violent video games while a large screen behind him showed images from an online game called "Kindergarten Killer." He criticized lawmakers for "bragging" about gun-free school zones that are posted so "they tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk."
Mr. LaPierre questioned why Americans accept using armed security to protect the president, banks, airports and sports stadiums but do not apply the same standards to protecting children.
"We as a society leave them every day utterly defenseless, and the monsters and the predators of the world know it and exploit it. That must change now," Mr. LaPierre said. "Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away or from a minute away?"
The NRA had remained mum for the past week since 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot his mother Dec. 14 at their home and then opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he slaughtered 20 children and six adults before killing himself.
On Tuesday, the powerful lobbying group publicized plans for a "major news conference" in which it would "offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
Mr. LaPierre offered few details for the NRA's proposal. He implied that the federal government has money to spare to fund school police.
"With all the foreign aid, with all the money in the federal budget, we can't afford to put a police officer in every school?" he said.
Although Mr. LaPierre also promoted a "National School Shield Program to develop model policies for armed security, building design and other aspects of safeguards schools, the centerpiece of the NRA's proposal was clearly the push to have a trained, armed presence in schools.
He described "millions" of active and retired police officers, military members, security professionals and an "extraordinary corps of patriotic, trained, qualified citizens" who could be deployed as part of what he called "America's police force."
Sharene Shealey, president of the Pittsburgh Public Schools board, said school safety was the topic of discussion during an executive session Wednesday and is a work in progress. But she was clear on her personal beliefs and reaction to the NRA's proposal.
"Any decision of that sort would be a vote of the full board, but my personal opinion is that is absurd. I can't imagine that that's the kind of environment that we want to educate our kids in," Ms. Shealey said.
That is exactly the environment, however, that Mr. LaPierre said could have saved lives in Connecticut.
"What if, when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he'd been confronted by qualified armed security? Will you at least admit it's possible that ... the 26 innocent lives might have been spared that day?"
Ms. Shealey and Ms. Goodman of CeaseFirePA, did not dismiss the idea of armed guards out of hand. But neither was willing to adopt such a proposal as a one-size-fits-all solution
"I'm not dismissing his statement that if there were guards at Sandy Hook this wouldn't have happened," Ms. Shealey said. "He could be correct. But I think there are other ways to protect our children than putting guns in our schools. I'm not sure our goal as a district should be to teach our children to fight fire with fire."
Ms. Goodman said there is no uniform agreement among school administrators and safety experts that having armed guards in schools is the answer.
She brought up a number of concerns that included the possibility of an assailant overwhelming an officer and confiscating the officer's weapon and the chance of innocents being injured in a crossfire between police and a gunman.
"I'm wary of that being held up as the single thing that would have made a difference," Ms. Goodman said. "Are we opposing school districts who want to go that route? No. We think it's a conversation that should be explored and questioned. ... It's one item in the tool box."
Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said many high schools already have school resource officers, some armed, who often are local police assigned to the school or off-duty police. Expanding the number of buildings covered would further stress districts already under financial strain.
"We have over 3,400 school buildings in Pennsylvania, and right now we're laying off teachers, we're increasing class sizes, we're closing school buildings and we're making serious cuts to educational programs," Mr. Buckheit said. "Do we want to make additional cuts to pay for armed security guards in those schools in places where they are perhaps not necessary?"
He said the recommendation "may be appropriate in some schools, but it would most likely be the exception rather than the rule, and actually can cause more fear among students and staff rather than helping the situation and alleviate fear -- particularly [in] elementary schools."nation
Jonathan D. Silver: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1962. Bill Schackner contributed.