WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One week after a school shooting that shocked Americans - with many of the 27 victims buried and time allowed for prayers and investigation - the National Rifle Association will dive in to the fierce national debate about gun control.
The largest U.S. gun rights lobby plans a well-coordinated public entrance to the conversation on how to prevent such tragedies, starting with a rare news conference on Friday at a hotel across the street from the White House.
NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre and President David Keene will then appear on separate Sunday television talk shows for their first interviews since gunman Adam Lanza killed his mother, 20 young children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday.
Inside and outside the NRA, an organization with powerful ties to politicians in Washington, expectations are the group will offer condolences and condemn the killings but offer little in the way of compromise over gun laws.
The group kept largely quiet in the first days after the Connecticut shooting, citing “common decency” and the need to allow time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts. It broke its silence on Tuesday to say it wanted to contribute meaningfully to prevent another massacre and announced its plans for the news conference on Friday.
“They will talk about how terrible the violence is, about helping the victims, about violence in society,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of “The Politics of Gun Control.”
Spitzer said he did not expect the NRA media blitz to lay out specific plans because so many within the organization consider the right to own guns absolute.
“If they did, it would contradict the path they have been following for about the last 35 years,” he said. “Much of their membership would declare war on their leaders.”
One NRA board member, Houston lawyer Charles Cotton, said the NRA should not say much until it hears more from gun-control supporters like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“You can’t say specifically what you want to do before you sit around a table and talk about it,” Cotton told Reuters.
America’s unique gun culture means there are hundreds of millions of firearms in the United States for hunting, self-defense and leisure, as well as illicit uses. No one knows how many guns there are because there is no national registry.
About 11,100 Americans died in gun-related killings during 2011, not including suicides, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The NRA uses political pressure against individual lawmakers in Congress and in state legislatures to press for loosening restrictions on gun sales and ownership while promoting hunting and gun sports.
Gun-control proponents have been pushing for tighter gun control since the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre, the fourth mass shooting in the United States this year.
President Barack Obama has vowed to present a detailed plan in January. On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden held the first meeting of an interagency effort among cabinet members and law enforcement officials.
“The president is absolutely committed to keeping the promise that he will act,” said Biden, who authored a crime bill in 1994 that included a ban on some semiautomatic rifles which has since expired. “We have to take action,” he said.
Democrats in Congress who favor gun control have called for quick votes on measures to ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, hoping that the slaying of the 6- and 7-year olds in Newtown might be enough to win over more lawmakers.
Lanza used a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, police said.
U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed in a mass shooting in 1993, said something had to be done. “There’s going to be another killing,” she told reporters at the Capitol. “The problem is, they are getting worse and worse.”
So far, the only major Republican legislator who has come out in favor of an assault weapons ban is Senator Scott Brown, a moderate from Massachusetts, who lost his bid for re-election and is leaving office.
The NRA’s power is partly due to its large and active membership, which reportedly has been growing rapidly since the Newtown shootings. NRA officials did not immediately comment, but Fox News, citing a source within the organization, said the group has been adding 8,000 new members a day.
The NRA is frequently described as having 4 million members, although nonprofit groups are not required to disclose their specific membership or how they define the term.
At key moments, such as before votes in Congress, many of those members flood lawmakers’ offices with calls - a tactic few organizations can pull off, and one that the NRA’s opponents want to imitate.
Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group co-led by Bloomberg, said his group orchestrated tens of thousands of calls that jammed White House phones on Wednesday.
“It’s the kind of thing that makes a difference in public policy. It’s the kind of thing the NRA does very well,” Glaze said. “And that’s the kind of movement that we have to build if we’re going to make any kind of difference.”
Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Howard Goller and Claudia Parsons