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Hunting For Votes, Romney Woos Wary Gun Owners

Mitt Romney speaks at the 138th National Rifle Association of America meetings on May 15, 2009, in Phoenix.
Christian Petersen
Mitt Romney speaks at the 138th National Rifle Association of America meetings on May 15, 2009, in Phoenix.

Now that Mitt Romney has the Republican presidential nomination all but officially won, he has two main challenges. The first is to energize a Republican base that has been cool to him. The second is to win back moderate, independent, swing voters who voted in 2008 for Barack Obama.

Friday, he's focusing on Job 1 — the base.

In St. Louis, Romney will address the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association.


A Rocky Relationship

The last time Romney spoke to the NRA convention in person, in 2009, he acknowledged a reality of his political career, saying the NRA's "Boston chapter is a little small these days."

In Massachusetts, where Romney served one term as governor, gun rights are not very popular. And his statements while running for office in Massachusetts in 2002 acknowledged that.

"We do have tough gun laws in Massachusetts. I support them. I won't chip away at them. I believe they help protect us and provide for our safety," said Romney.

Eight years earlier, when running for the Senate, Romney supported a bill that imposed a five-day wait for people buying guns.


He told the Boston Herald, "That's not going to make me the hero of the NRA."

But when he started running for president in 2007, Romney opposed a waiting period to buy guns. Opponents called it a flip-flop.

Romney appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, saying technology had changed: The Internet now lets you do background checks in moments.

"The original [Brady Bill] had a waiting period because it took a long time to check on people's backgrounds. Today, we can check instantly on backgrounds. I don't want to cause a waiting period that's not necessary based upon today's technology," Romney said.

As Massachusetts governor, Romney also signed a bill making the state's temporary assault weapons ban permanent. "These guns are not made for recreation or self-defense. They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people," Romney said at the signing ceremony.

During that same appearance on Meet The Press in 2007, Romney explained that he signed the bill because both the pro-gun and anti-gun lobby supported it. "I signed an assault weapons ban in Massachusetts as governor because it provided for a relaxation of licensing requirements for gun owners in Massachusetts, which was a big plus."

Not A 'Big Game Hunter'

This was part of a broad Romney effort during the last presidential campaign to convince gun owners that he's one of them. He bought a lifetime NRA membership just before he began that run, during which he said, "I've been a hunter pretty much all my life."

Two days later, he had to backpedal when evidence to the contrary came out.

"I'm not a big game hunter. I've made it very clear. I've always been, if you will, a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small, small, varmints if you will," Romney said on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews.

In this year's campaign, Romney often expresses support for the Second Amendment, but he does not pretend to be an avid hunter.

"I'm not going to describe all of my great exploits, but I went moose hunting, actually, not moose hunting. I'm sorry — elk hunting with friends in Montana. Been pheasant hunting," Romney said in a debate a few months ago.

Disappointment With Obama

Mitt Romney may not have been the NRA's first choice in the Republican field. But UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who generally supports gun rights, says the NRA and its supporters won't hold a grudge.

"I think for them the question is going to be, 'Who is most likely to oppose any federal gun control proposals, who is most likely to support extra protection for gun ... owners, and who is most likely to nominate Supreme Court justices who are going to reaffirm the Second Amendment as an individual right to keep and bear arms?' " said Volokh.

By that measure, gun-rights supporters believe that any Republican would be better than President Obama — even though the Obama administration has been virtually silent on guns.

"I think guns have been disconcertingly low on the national list of political priorities," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"President Obama himself has not been nearly as outspoken on the gun issue as we would hope, so it goes all the way to the top," said Gross.

There's been far more action at the state level, says Gary Kleck, professor of criminal justice at Florida State University. "The needle has moved in certain areas, and it's moved to the right, to the less-strict-control direction, and that's especially true in the area of carrying guns in public places," Kleck says.

He says 44 of the 50 states now offer permits for adults without a criminal background to carry concealed weapons, adding "that certainly was not true, let's say, 25 years ago."

In other words, the NRA has been on a winning streak. And they hope a President Romney would help them keep it that way.

Democracy Day is an effort that started in 2022 to draw attention to the crisis facing American democracy, provide the public with the context and information they need, and bring all types of media together to sound the alarm collectively. KPBS is a media partner in this collaborative.