SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. One week after the shooting deaths of 20 first graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, the National Rifle Association has spoken out. The nation's largest gun owners group had said little in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. Their suggestion yesterday was to place armed guards at all of the nation's schools. The idea was met with immediate criticism, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre broke the gun group's silence at what was billed as a news conference at a Washington, D.C. hotel, although reporters were denied the opportunity to ask questions. After expressing the group's horror, outrage and grief at the shootings, LaPierre said the only way to stop - in his words - a monster from killing our kids was with what he called a plan of absolute protection.
WAYNE LAPIERRE: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away or from a minute away?
NAYLOR: The NRA chief's statement was interrupted twice by protesters; one who said the NRA had blood on its hands.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ban assault weapons now. Ban assault weapons now.
NAYLOR: Democrats in Congress were quick to react to LaPierre. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is sponsoring legislation to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, said about a third of the nation's schools already have armed guards.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Is this the answer that America should become an armed camp? I don't think so, and I don't think that's the American dream.
NAYLOR: Democratic Senator-elect Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, whose current congressional district encompasses Newtown, called LaPierre's comments tone deaf. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said if the NRA wants to be part of the national conversation about gun violence, it's not doing itself any favors.
SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: The NRA today in its approach will be irrelevant because it can't be a credible and constructive participant in this debate if it says the only acceptable solution is armed guards in schools.
NAYLOR: The NRA has long been known as one of Washington's most powerful lobbies. It's been a prolific contributor to political candidates and has waged public campaigns against renewal of the assault weapons ban. It's also been active in limiting the reach of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which enforces federal gun laws. The NRA was behind the efforts to limit access to a database used to trace weapons. William Vizzard is a former ATF agent, who says the NRA is worried the government wants a national gun registry.
WILLIAM VIZZARD: A lot of those folks are very paranoid about what they consider registration, but to a large extent it was an attempt to undercut the ability of the press and other entities to write stories about this and various local municipal jurisdictions filing suit and so on.
NAYLOR: The ATF has been without a permanent administrator since the Bush administration, in part because of NRA opposition. It's also been able to keep funding for the agency flat. But Vizzard, who teaches criminal justice at Sacramento State, says it's not so much the number of agents as it is the restraints they're under.
VIZZARD: ATF could have 10,000 agents; it doesn't essentially mean they be able to produce a lot better result because they don't have the statutory authority. They even restricted the number of times they can inspect a dealer per year.
NAYLOR: This week, some lawmakers, whom the NRA had previously given A grades, have expressed an interest in broaching gun issues for the first time. How far they'll get is unclear, but their willingness suggests the NRA's aura of invincibility may be showing some cracks. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.