Courting skeptical gun owners, Mitt Romney told a National Rifle Association convention that their rights are under assault from President Barack Obama’s administration and they must help block his re-election.
“We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners. President Obama has not; I will,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said in St. Louis yesterday at a gathering organizers say will draw about 65,000 through the weekend.
“We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen and those who seek to protect their homes and their families,” he said. “President Obama has not; I will.”
Romney suggested defeating Obama would help ensure the U.S. Supreme Court would continue to protect gun rights under the Constitution’s Second Amendment.
“In his first term, we’ve seen this president try to browbeat the Supreme Court,” Romney said. “In a second term, he would remake it. Our freedoms would be in the hands of an Obama Court, not just for four years, but for the next 40. And we must not let that happen.”
Romney argued Obama has moved the nation “away from our founders’ vision” of limited government with an “assault” on freedom. “Freedom is the victim of unbounded government appetite --and so is economic growth and job growth and wage growth,” he said.
Before his speech, Romney introduced his wife as he sought to keep alive the political furor that erupted when a Democratic strategist scorned Ann Romney, a mother of five, for never having “worked a day in her life.”
“I happen to believe all moms are working moms,” Mitt Romney said.
The NRA represents a key constituency for Romney as he tries to consolidate his party’s support following the nomination fight and amid a heightened discussion about gun rights following the February fatal shooting in Florida of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
Republicans are more likely to have guns in their homes than Democrats, 55 percent to 40 percent, according to a Gallup poll taken in October. The survey showed 47 percent of American adults have a firearm in their homes.
The NRA has approximately 4 million members, according to Stephanie Samford, a spokeswoman. Many are located in such general election swing states as Florida and Ohio.
Romney’s audience included those skeptical of his commitment to their side of the debate over gun laws.
“He’s better than Obama,” said Tom Zenthoefer, 53, an NRA member from Fenton, Missouri. “It will be a hold-your-nose situation.”
Ahead of the speech, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt tweaked Romney, echoing lines of attack that were used against him by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania during the Republican primary race.
“The president’s record makes clear the he supports and respects the Second Amendment,” LaBolt said in a statement, referring to the constitutional provision protecting the right to bear arms. “Mitt Romney is going to have difficulty explaining why he quadrupled fees on gun owners in Massachusetts, then lied about being a lifelong hunter in an act of shameless pandering. That varmint won’t hunt.”
During his first White House bid, Romney made clear in 2007 that he isn’t a serious hunter, as he talked about varmints.
“I’m not a big-game hunter,” he said. “I’ve made it very clear, I’ve always been a, if you will, a rodent and rabbit hunter all right? Small, small varmints, if you will. And I began when I was, oh, 15 or so, and have hunted those kinds of varmints since then -- more than two times. I also hunted quail in Georgia, so I’ve -- it’s not really big-game hunting, if you will, however. It’s not deer and large animals. But I’ve hunted a number of times of various types of small rodents.”
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said he now owns two shotguns.
Gingrich and Santorum stoked questions about Romney’s support for gun owners by suggesting he shares Obama’s gun views, including support for the so-called Brady Bill of 1993 that required licensed gun dealers to perform criminal background checks on buyers.
“He supported the Brady Bill, supported the gun ban, increased taxes on gun licenses by 400 percent when he was in the state of Massachusetts,” Santorum, who exited the race on April 10, said while campaigning in Pennsylvania on April 4.
Romney, 65, also backed a ban on certain assault weapons in a 1994 federal anti-crime bill. As governor, he signed legislation that raised gun license fees from $25 to $100 to help close a state budget deficit, while also extending license durations to mitigate the increased cost, according to a Boston Globe report.
Santorum also spoke to the convention, and though he hasn’t formally endorsed Romney, he praised him and promised to campaign for Republicans this year.
“I pledge to you, even though I’m no longer in this race, that I will be all in between now and November,” Santorum said. “I will do everything I can to make sure we elect Republicans and conservatives up and down the ticket.”
Whatever concerns may exist among NRA members about Romney, they pale in comparison to the group’s displeasure with Obama. One of the NRA’s top objectives is to oust him from office.
Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, told yesterday’s crowd that “America as we know it will be on its way to being lost forever” if Obama wins another term.
“When the sun goes down on Election Day, Barack Obama will have us to thank for his defeat,” he said.
The opposition to Obama comes even though gun-control advocates have expressed disappointment in his administration.
“We’re hoping that, should he be re-elected, he will take a stand on this issue,” said Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, especially given a surge in shooting deaths this year in his adopted hometown of Chicago.
Gingrich, who with U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas are Romney’s last remaining challengers in the Republican race, followed the presumptive nominee to the stage. Gingrich said the world would be safer -- with fewer women raped and children killed -- if more people were armed and that the NRA has been too timid in promoting gun rights for others across the globe.
‘Armed With Safety’
“We believe they can in fact protect themselves and they can be armed with safety because they are in charge of their life because God has made them sovereign, not the government,” he said.
The NRA, which began as a grassroots organization dedicated to teaching marksmanship, enters the 2012 election season as a lobbying, merchandising and marketing machine that brings in more than $200 million a year. From 2004 to 2010, the group’s revenue from fundraising -- including gifts from gun makers who benefit from its political activism -- grew twice as fast as its income from members’ dues, according to NRA tax returns.
More than 50 firearms-related companies have given at least $14.8 million to the Fairfax, Virginia-based group, according to the NRA’s list for a donor program that began in 2005. That same year, NRA lobbyists helped win passage of a federal law limiting liability claims against gun makers. Former NRA President Sandy Froman wrote that it “saved the American gun industry from bankruptcy.”
Gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc., of Southport, Connecticut, is among the manufacturers that have benefited from NRA lobbying, including a decades-long effort in states for laws allowing permits to carry concealed weapons. Wisconsin became the 49th state to allow such licenses in July and Illinois, the last remaining state, is debating legislation now.
Romney will be away from the campaign trail much of the weekend, except for fundraisers in Florida scheduled for April 15.