By Roberta Rampton and Makini Brice
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the National Rifle Association lashed out at gun control advocates on Thursday, saying Democratic elites are politicizing the latest mass school shooting in the United States to try to erode constitutionally guaranteed gun rights.
NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre echoed President Donald Trump's call to arm teachers to prevent school shootings, and weighed in on a long-running political and cultural divide over access to weapons that has been inflamed by last week's massacre at a Florida high school that killed 17 students and staff.
"The elites don't care not one whit about America's school system and school children," LaPierre told a friendly audience of conservatives outside Washington. "Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms."
The U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms.
At the White House, Trump told local and state school officials he had discussed his ideas to stem gun violence in schools with the NRA, the politically influential gun lobby that backed him in the 2016 campaign. He called the group "Great American Patriots."
"There's a tremendous feeling that we want to get something done," he said. "The NRA wants to do the right thing."
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer condemned LaPierre's comments and said the NRA was "once again spewing pathetic, out of touch ideas, blaming everything but guns."
The Feb. 14 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was the latest in a series of deadly shootings at U.S. schools and has spurred unprecedented youth-led protests in cities across the country. Many of the teenagers and their parents taking part have called for more curbs on guns.
LaPierre, speaking at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, portrayed the NRA as the true protector of the country's schoolchildren and offered free training to those who want to bear arms to protect schools.
"We must immediately harden our schools," he said. "Every day, young children are being dropped off at schools that are virtually wide open, soft targets for anyone bent on mass murder." It should not be easier to shoot up a school than a bank or a jewelry store, he added.
The NRA set up a booth at the conference to sign up new members and recruit campaign field workers for the November mid-term elections in which Democrats are trying to take over control of Congress from Trump's fellow Republicans.
"I'm strongly for concealed carry, strongly for arming the teachers like Trump said," said Nick Fuentes, 19, from Chicago, as he stood outside the booth. "Teachers who are adept at firearms should be armed."
LaPierre attacked Democrats by name including Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Christopher Murphy and also took a swipe at the FBI for failing to follow up on a tip about the alleged shooter in the Parkland massacre. The FBI has said it failed to act on the tip.
Florida Governor Rick Scott also criticized the FBI for failing so far to provide details about why it did not respond to the tip. "Family members and loved ones of the victims deserve answers today," Scott said in a statement.
Trump reiterated his idea, first raised on Wednesday during an emotional discussion with people affected by the shooting, to arm teachers, a notion raised by some politicians in the past but dismissed by critics as fraught with danger.
"Anyone who pushes arming teachers doesn't understand teachers and doesn't understand our schools. Adding more guns to schools may create an illusion of safety, but in reality it would make our classrooms less safe," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers union.
At an hourlong meeting on school safety with 10 state and local officials, Trump said armed teachers with an aptitude for guns would deter would-be shooters.
"A gun-free zone to a killer, or somebody that wants to be a killer, that's like going in for the ice cream," Trump said. "They're not going to walk into a school if 20 percent of the teachers have guns."
Trump repeated his support for tightening background checks for gun buyers, with an emphasis on mental health, and lifting the age limit to buy some kinds of guns. He also said he would push for an end to the sale of bump stocks, which allow rifles to shoot hundreds of rounds a minute.
The White House said Trump does not want to ban sales of an entire class of firearms despite mounting pressure to put assault weapons such as the one used in the Florida shooting out of civilian reach.
While gun laws vary widely by state, most federal gun control measures would require Congress to act.
A 19-year-old former student at Stoneman Douglas, Nikolas Cruz, has been charged with carrying out the Parkland shooting. Authorities say he was armed with a semiautomatic AR-15 assault-style rifle that he had purchased legally last year.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dubuzinskis in Los Angeles, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Doina Chiacu and John Whitesides; Editing by Frances Kerry and Will Dunham)