– The head of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, leveled a searing indictment Thursday against liberal Democrats, the news media and political opportunists he said were joined together in a socialist plot to "eradicate all individual freedoms."

LaPierre's remarks, his first since a gunman took the lives of 17 people at a Florida high school last week, seemed aimed at blunting the rising public pressure for stricter gun control. Conservatives, he said, need to push back.

"The shameful politicization of tragedy — it's a classic strategy, right out of the playbook of a poisonous movement," he said to a friendly but largely restrained crowd at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. "They hate the NRA. They hate the Second Amendment. They hate individual freedom."

The solution LaPierre offered was not to pass new laws but to better enforce the existing background check system and, he said, "harden our schools" with more armed guards.

"Evil walks among us," he added, making a passing reference to "another terrible tragedy" in the Parkland massacre.

LaPierre's appearance each year at the conference, known as CPAC, is typically an event that passes without much notice. But this year, coming just a week after one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, CPAC seemed to take on the feel of an NRA forum.

LaPierre's name was initially left off the program. Then, on Thursday morning, the conference's organizers released a revised schedule with both LaPierre and Dana Loesch, an NRA spokeswoman, added as speakers.

Outside the hall where they spoke, an NRA booth was broadcasting hours of online video programming from its in-house news channel, NRATV, which the organization has used as an early-warning system to alert its followers to gun control efforts.

In his speech, LaPierre singled out Democrats he said are pushing a "socialist agenda," including Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

"They hide behind labels like Democrat, left-wing, and progressive to make their socialist agenda more palatable, and that is terrifying," LaPierre said.

Speaking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer later Thursday, Ellison said LaPierre is "trying to use fear to manipulate people."

"We've got to keep the focus on the families," Ellison said, referring to people affected by the Parkland shooting.