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NRA head to Congress: Don't blame gun owners for violence

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), speaks during a news conference in Washington December 21,
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), speaks during a news conference in Washington December 21,

By Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The National Rifle Association will argue that greater restrictions are not the answer to gun violence at a Senate hearing on Wednesday, which is likely to stoke skepticism that legislation to tighten controls will advance very far this year.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, in testimony released on Tuesday on the eve of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, showed no signs of backing down from opposition to gun controls advocated by President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers after a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December.

"While we're ready to participate in a meaningful effort to solve these pressing problems, we must respectfully - but honestly and firmly - disagree with some members of this committee, many in the media and all of the gun control groups on what will keep our kids and our streets safe," LaPierre, who as NRA head leads the country's biggest gun rights group, said.

Republicans on the committee also have shown no signs of voting for gun control. "I don't know of a Republican that's going to vote for any gun control," Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a senior Republican on the panel, said in an interview earlier this month.

The committee's Wednesday hearing will to explore gun violence as the panel considers a package of gun control measures backed by committee Democrats. Obama has made passage of gun restrictions, including an assault weapons ban and new controls on gun purchases, a priority of his second term.

But the opposition of Republicans like Hatch will make it difficult, if not impossible, to pass strong measures brought in response to a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

"Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals. Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families," LaPierre said.

LaPierre advocated more armed security in schools, an idea he promoted soon after the attack. "It's time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children. About a third of our schools have armed security already - because it works," he said.

Referring to the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which killed 20 children and six adults, Hatch also said he believes the NRA, a leading gun rights group, has been unfairly tied to a surge in mass shootings.

The NRA "always seems to be who gets blamed for tragedies such as this, but you have to ask the question, 'Are they really at fault?'" he said.

Hatch said NRA members are upstanding citizens. "They are not jerks; they are very solid people," said Hatch, who has a gun permit in Utah and is a lifetime NRA member.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a senior Democrat on the Judiciary committee, is leading the charge to revive a U.S. assault weapons ban and said on Sunday that while winning Senate passage would be difficult, she had been assured that it would be brought up for a vote.

FOCUS SHOULD BE ON ENFORCING CURRENT LAWS

Hatch said his "A plus" rating from the NRA on legislative issues was important because he represents Utah which is "filled with people who love to shoot and hunt."

"The NRA represents millions of law-abiding Americans who choose to exercise that right. It isn't that the NRA is powerful; it's that they represent what is a core value of our nation. That is the right to defend ourselves, as guaranteed by the Constitution," Hatch said.

Rather than passing new restrictions, the NRA argues that the focus should be on more vigorously enforcing existing gun laws. Hatch and others on Capitol Hill also have voiced support for increased services for the mentally ill.

"I've been around this town of Washington for a long time. I understand that it's easer to make a big, faceless organization out to be the bogeyman but this faceless organization represents millions of law-abiding Americans that are exercising their explicit Constitutional rights," Hatch said.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Cynthia Osterman)

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