Breaking its silence in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre, the National Rifle Association has added to the emotional national debate on gun control by calling for armed guards at schools.
The announcement of a taskforce, led by former US Rep. Asa Hutchinson, to create a national "school shield" model came after NRA chief lobbyist Wayne LaPierre blamed violent popular culture and "gun free zones" for informing "every insane killer in America that schools are the safest places to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk."
The press conference, which was punctuated by protesters shouting, "The NRA has blood on its hands," capped a week of roiling debate that made it clear that the country is far from united on how to stop gunmen from breaching school defenses and attacking children.
Whether epitomizing a red-blue or rural-urban divide, the NRA's response stood in stark philosophical contrast to calls for assault weapons bans and other restrictions coming from many gun control advocates, including President Obama. This week, Mr. Obama announced a White House anti-gun violence task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, which met for the first time on Thursday as it aims to return recommendations within 30 days.
All of this come a week after, 20-year-old Adam Lanza armed himself with an assault rifle, handguns, and hundreds of bullets, forcing himself into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six school staffers before shooting himself .
The open question is whether Americans will be able to look beyond the emotional sniping from both sides of the debate to find local solutions to keeping schools safe while safeguarding the constitutional right to own and carry guns for sporting purposes or self-defense.
"I think both sides need to give up something now," says Burke Strunsky, a senior homicide prosecutor in the Riverside, Calif., district attorney's office.
"People advocating for strong gun control have to come to terms with [recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the right to bear arms] and the pro-gun side needs to come to terms with a patent reality, that the proliferation of guns is having a major effect on the number of gun-related homicides that are happening," he says. “If both sides can get over their reluctance to admit what is obvious, I think we're going to get a lot further in the debate.”
But for now, the nation appeared to be coalescing along divergent paths where actual policy changes may have more to do with state residency than federal citizenship, not to mention political leanings of elected representatives.
In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg, the nation's staunchest anti-gun official, called the NRA's proposal a "dystopian" worldview.
Mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia said the NRA's message is "an insult to the lives of those children" killed in Newtown. "That we would face the prospects of shoot-outs in our schools, and utilize the precious and declining resources in public education to put armed personnel in every school is insane."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Friday that outright gun confiscation could be part of a legislative effort in New York, already one of the most tightly controlled states. "Confiscation could be an option. Mandatory sale to the state could be an option. Permitting could be an option – keep your gun but permit it," the governor said.
Some Republican governors distanced themselves from the NRA as well. Rick Snyder of Michigan this week vetoed a law that would have legalized gun-carry in schools. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he doesn’t like the idea of schools becoming “armed camps.”
In contrast, a Georgia lawmaker this week introduced several bills aimed at scuttling gun restrictions in the Peach State, with a warning that "evil resides in the heart of the individual, not in material objects."
In other red and purple states like Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Pennsylvania, and even largely liberal Minnesota, lawmakers have begun mulling proposals involving teachers at least being able to store guns in their cars at work. A Virginia lawmaker has proposed a law mandating that at least some teachers in every school are armed.
But even as LaPierre's speech seemed to signal possible retrenchment, the antagonistic and divergent political debate could also be seen as productive, even healthy, says Second Amendment scholar David Angeli, an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.
"The fact that there are two separate tracks [in reaction to the shootings] could be a healthy thing," says Mr. Angeli. "I'm hopeful that we'll take the best ideas from both of those groups since it seems like reasonable-minded people could come together on some of these issues."
To many American parents, the divide over how to proceed may have regional and demographic implications, but there's also a distinct class divide that's emerged in the debate.
Pro-gun advocates, including the NRA’s LaPierre, have pointed out that many of the same powerful and wealthy leaders calling for stricter gun restrictions themselves are under armed guard, including members of Congress protected in their hallways by the Capitol Police.
"Even if we hypothesize that [Michael Bloomberg's] guards only have magazines with 10 or less rounds, he's got six of those guys, which means his guys can shoot 60 times without reloading," says Dave Kopel, research director at the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver, Colo. "So if one guy wants to have a magazine that he thinks is important for protecting his family, let's say 12 rounds, Michael Bloomberg says you should be a criminal for doing that."
Perhaps more significant to the debate are trends that show Americans accepting guns, despite their faults, at a broader societal level. While the Pew Research Center recorded more support after Sandy Hook for gun restrictions, support for gun rights today, Pew found, still exceeds levels recorded at President Obama's election.
"The gun culture is all around you," writes novelist Larry Correia, a former firearms instructor, in a widely-read blog post, citing rising numbers of licensed concealed weapons carriers. "Now everybody outside of elite urban liberal city centers knows somebody that carries a gun. The gun culture is simply regular America, and is made up of people who think their lives and their families' lives are more important than the life of anyone who tries to victimize them."
To be sure, the federal focus likely will be on a renewed assault weapons ban and bans on larger magazine clips, of the kind used by the Newtown shooter. A 10-year assault weapons ban ended in 2004, after which a federally-funded taskforce found the ban had relatively little impact on gun crimes or violence. Meanwhile, the number of Americans carrying concealed weapons has skyrocketed in recent years, to more than 8 million in the wake of major court decisions affirming Americans' individual right to bear arms.
About 32,000 people a year die of gunshot wounds in the US, with two-thirds of those being suicides. At the same time, studies point to as many as 108,000 instances a year where guns are used defensively to thwart violence, often with no shots fired.
Amid that debate, however, few organizations carry the emotional weight of the NRA, which is widely seen by critics as an apologist – even a catalyst – for America's legacy of gun violence.
Though its unapologetic response to the Sandy Hook School massacre drew vilification from the left, LaPierre’s statement Friday – he took no questions from the media – revealed the NRA’s core operating principle: No retreat or concessions on gun rights.
Yet its idea to engage retired law enforcement in a kind of national school "shield" corps excited some Americans, including St. Leo University criminologist Edward Leddy, a former police officer.
"I was ready to volunteer," he said.
But beyond the partisanship and any divide between red and blue states or between rural and urban America, Mr. Leddy says he believes most American parents are taking an honest, unflinching look at how to make their local schools safer, whether it means creating "bunker" style security cordons, banning certain types of weapons, or having grandfatherly armed volunteers greeting children in school lobbies.
"It seems people are starting to look at this issue and thinking about it rather than just reacting emotionally, and I think the end result is that we'll come up with something that is probably going to improve things in reality rather than earn politicians … votes by recommending things which have failed already," he says.