May 4 (Bloomberg) -- Texas Senator Ted Cruz and a parade of other possible 2016 Republican presidential candidates anchored the opening day of the National Rifle Association’s annual conference as they praised the lobby group for its efforts to defeat President Barack Obama’s gun legislation.
Pressure from NRA members derailed “what looked like an unstoppable freight train,” Cruz said yesterday, referring to measures such as expanded background checks for firearm purchases that stalled in the Senate last month.
Welcomed at the gathering in Houston with a sustained standing ovation, Cruz echoed one of the main arguments the NRA used against the proposals, which most Democrats backed. “The target of their legislation is not violent criminals,” he said. “The target of their legislation is law-abiding citizens.”
A video-taped message from another potential Republican White House contender, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, underscored the role the gun-rights group plays in the party. Ryan, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate, said he encountered an NRA member helping the ticket almost every day on the campaign trail.
The organization boasts that its 4.5 million members are among the most reliable, engaged voters. The Fairfax, Virginia-based group lobbies on behalf of gun owners and the firearms industry, grades politicians based on their support of its positions and sends frequent political and policy messages to its members.
The NRA mobilized to oppose the Obama-led push for new gun-control laws following the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The measures, in a series of April votes, failed to get the 60 votes needed to advance in the 100-member Senate.
Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, a prospective presidential candidate, told the Houston crowd they “won” by pressing lawmakers to resist the measures, including the expanded background-check proposal offered by Senators Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican. Voting for that provision were 54 senators, while 46 opposed it.
“NRA members are better than any other folks I know at making our voices heard,” Jindal said.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who sought last year’s 2012 Republican presidential nomination and may run again, offered similar accolades. “You stood up when freedom was under assault. You made a difference,” he said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, a lifetime NRA member with an A-plus rating from the organization, cautioned the crowd that defeating federal gun legislation would be “a long fight, but one that we will ultimately win.”
Perry, another failed 2012 Republican presidential aspirant, hasn’t ruled out another bid.
Cruz, elected in November with backing from the anti-tax Tea Party movement, was the most warmly received of the potential presidential contenders. He called on “Obama liberals” to focus on increasing school safety funding and enforcing existing gun laws instead of pushing for new measures.
The Senate last month also rejected proposals to ban assault weapons and limit the capacity of ammunition magazines.
Cruz last night spoke in Columbia, South Carolina, at a dinner honoring Jim DeMint, the state’s former senator who late last year gave up his seat to head the Republican-leaning Heritage Foundation policy group in Washington. DeMint is a favorite of Tea Party activists and South Carolina traditionally holds an early presidential primary.
Even as those at the NRA gathering reveled in the blocking of new regulation of firearm purchases and ownership, the bid to revive the effort appeared to be gaining some ground.
Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, who voted against the measure to require background checks for Internet and gun-show firearms sales and then announced he wouldn’t seek a seventh term next year, said in a statement this week he would “evaluate” any new gun-control attempts.
Obama will “press ahead” for his legislation and will explore taking executive actions to accomplish his aims, his press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters yesterday.
Perry, like the other top Republicans addressing yesterday’s NRA conference, criticized the president’s gun-control goals.
“While they may keep our president scoring political points, they do nothing but make it harder for law-abiding Americans to own guns,” Perry said, drawing whistles and applause from the crowd. That, he said, “makes it easier for predators to prey upon the defenseless.”
Names of Victims
The three-day conference is expected to draw 70,000 or more attendees, NRA officials said. It also is attracting gun-control advocates, some of whom stood in a park across from the convention center reading the names of victims of gun violence.
Supporters of tougher background checks are borrowing tactics from Tea Party groups that were galvanized to action in 2009 by opposition to Obama’s health-care law and helped give Republicans control of the U.S. House in the 2010 elections.
NRA officials rallied conference attendees by predicting failure for the gun-control advocates.
“We are going to defend our freedom, we promise you,” said NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre. He called the lobbying by NRA members “the very essence of participation in our democracy.”
A “Stand and Fight” rally at the conference today will be headlined by radio talk show host Glenn Beck.
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