NASHVILLE—Prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidates and the leaders of the National Rifle Association focused more on Hillary Clinton than President Barack Obama on Friday as they criticized their gun-control views and other policies.
"We're onto her. She's been coming after us for decades," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told the group's annual convention. "Hillary Clinton hasn't met a gun control bill she couldn't support."
In a sprawling ballroom at the Music City Center convention center, LaPierre took members of the nation's largest and most powerful gun organization on a stroll down memory lane of Clinton controversies, saying the former secretary of state, senator and first lady "has more 'gates' than a south Texas cattle ranch."
Clinton is poised to announce her second bid for the presidency as early as this weekend.
"We will stand and we will fight with everything we're got and in 2016, by God, we will elect our next great president of the United States of America and it will not be Hillary Rodham Clinton," LaPierre said.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who announced his candidacy last month, made a reference to a cannon involved with the Texas Revolution in the 1830s, as he noted Clinton's pending entry into the race.
"This weekend, Hillary Clinton is announcing for president," he said. "Well, I'll tell you, if Hillary Clinton is going to join with Barack Obama and the gun-grabbers that come after our guns, then what I say is come and take it."
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush called the Second Amendment "the original Homeland Security Act," as he pitched his record on guns.
“I’ve been in the trenches with you. And when I was governor, we were passing laws and creating protections for gun-owners that set the bar for other states to follow," he said. “I will match my record against anyone else’s when it comes to the support and defense of the Second Amendment."
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida kept his criticism directed at Obama. "Strong defenses, both on the national and the personal level, are means of preventing violence, not of promoting it," he said. "Weakness, on the other hand, is the friend of danger and weakness is the enemy of peace. President Obama has been a weak president. The only thing President Obama has strengthened over the last six years has been his own, unlawful power."
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker criticized Obama's unsuccessful efforts to tighten gun regulations. "Mr. President, last time I checked, the Second Amendment is part of the Constitution," he said. "You don't get to pick and choose which part of the Constitution you like and which part you don't."
Walker said his support for the NRA and less restrictive gun laws isn't just because his state has a strong hunting heritage. "When we signed into law concealed carry, it was about freedom," he said.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, looking out onto the audience at the start of his remarks, made a Clinton reference as well. "I think all of us are what Hillary Clinton once called the 'vast right wing conspiracy,'” he joked.
Jindal called the NRA the "most effective civil rights organization" in the U.S. "It is our duty to not only exercise our freedoms, but to defend the freedoms of all Americans," he said.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is known for jogging with a firearm, told the gathering that he had "hung out the 'open for business' sign for gun manufactures." The best defense against crime is an "armed citizenry," he said.
Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon-turned-conservative-activist, sought to assure NRA members about a 2013 statement he made about semi-automatic weapons. "I've learned how to express myself better," he said. "I am extremely pro-Second Amendment."
Despite what he has seen on the streets and in emergency rooms, Carson said he remains solidly pro-gun. "I spent many a night operating on people with gunshot wounds to their heads," he said. "It is not nearly as horrible as having a population that is defenseless against a group of tyrants who have arms."
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee ended his speech with a "God bless the NRA," after arguing that guns are central to the nation's self-defense. "We will not disarm and America will never fall," he said. "It will not fall because we will not let it."
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina kept his focus on Obama, as he said that virtually all of the Republicans likely to run for president are supportive of gun rights. "The next time you vote for president, make sure they've at least run a lemonade stand, they're proud of their country in terms of being exceptional and they know somebody who owns a gun," he said.
In total, almost a dozen prospective Republican candidates spoke Friday afternoon, near the start of a three-day convention that organizers say will draw about 70,000. Absent were New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who weren't invited.
Christie, who once criticized the NRA after the group featured Obama's children in a video, received a marginal grade (C) from them before of his successful 2013 re-election.
Paul, who opposes gun control legislation and has been an outspoken on the Second Amendment, is in the midst of a four-state tour following his Tuesday presidential campaign announcement.
With the exception of Christie, nearly all of the prospective Republican candidates are opposed to new limits on the purchase or use of guns. Their NRA ratings range from A-plus to an A-minus.