WASHINGTON - After four days of self-imposed silence on the shooting that killed 26 people inside a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, the nation's largest gun rights lobby emerged Tuesday and promised "to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
The National Rifle Association explained its unusual absence "out of respect for the families and as a matter of common decency" after Friday's shooting that left dead 20 children, all ages 6 or 7.
The group - typically outspoken about its positions even after shooting deaths - went all but silent since the rampage. As it faced public scrutiny online and in person, the group left many wondering how - if at all - it would respond to one of the most shocking slayings in the nation's history.
"The National Rifle Association of America is made up of 4 million moms and dads, sons and daughters, and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown," the organization said in a statement. "The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
The group said it would have a news conference to answer questions Friday, the one-week anniversary of the shootings.
Almost immediately after it became clear the extent of carnage, the group's Facebook page disappeared. It posted no tweets. It made no mention of the shooting on its website. None of its leaders hit the media circuit Sunday to promote its support of the Second Amendment right to bear arms as the nation mourns the latest shooting victims and opens a new debate over gun restrictions. On Monday, the NRA offered no rebuttal as 300 antigun protesters marched to its Capitol Hill office.
Yet on Tuesday, the NRA re-emerged, albeit more slowly than normal and with its somber statement.
After previous mass shootings - such as in Oregon and Wisconsin - the group was quick to both send its condolences and defend gun owners' constitutional rights, popular among millions of Americans. There's no indication that the National Rifle Association is prepared to weaken its ardent opposition to gun restrictions but it did hint it was open to being part of a dialogue that already has begun.
Its deep-pocketed efforts to oppose gun control laws have proven resilient. Firearms are in a third or more of U.S. households and suspicion runs deep of an overbearing government whenever it proposes expanding federal authority. The argument of gun-rights advocates that firearm ownership is a bedrock freedom as well as a necessary option for self-defense has proved persuasive enough to dampen political enthusiasm for substantial change.
Seldom had the NRA gone so long after a fatal shooting without a public presence. It resumed tweeting just one day after a gunman killed two people and then himself at an Oregon shopping mall last Tuesday, and one day after six people were fatally shot at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August.
The Connecticut shootings occurred three days after the incident in Oregon.
Since the Connecticut shootings, the NRA has been taunted and criticized at length, vitriol that may have prompted the shuttering of its Facebook page just a day after the association boasted about reaching 1.7 million supporters on the social media network.
Twitter users have been relentless, protesting the organization with hashtags like NoWayNRA.
The NRA has not responded to them. Its last tweets, sent Friday, offered a chance to win an auto flashlight.
Offline, some 300 protesters gathered outside the NRA's lobbying headquarters on Capitol Hill on Monday chanting, "Shame on the NRA" and waving signs declaring "Kill the 2nd Amendment, Not Children" and "Protect Children, Not Guns."
"I had to be here," said Gayle Fleming, 65, a real estate agent from Arlington, Va., saying she was attending her first antigun rally. "These were 20 babies. I will be at every rally, will sign every letter, call every congressman going forward."
Retired attorney Kathleen Buffon of Chevy Chase, Md., reflected on earlier mass shootings, saying: "All of the other ones, they've been terrible. This is the last straw. These were children."
"The NRA has had a stranglehold on Congress," she added as she marched toward the NRA's unmarked office. "It's time to call them out."
The group's reach on Capitol Hill is wide as it wields its deep pockets to defeat lawmakers, many of them Democrats, who push for restrictions on gun ownership.
The NRA outspent its chief opponent by a 73-1 margin to lobby the outgoing Congress, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks such spending. It spent more than 4,000 times its biggest opponents during the 2012 election.
In all, the group spent at least $24 million this election cycle - $16.8 million through its political action committee and nearly $7.5 million through its affiliated Institute for Legislative Action. Its chief foil, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, spent just $5,816.
On direct lobbying, the NRA also was mismatched. Through July 1, the NRA spent $4.4 million to lobby Congress to the Brady Campaign's $60,000.