Romney Appeals To Gun Enthusiasts In NRA Speech

The National Rifle Association has had one of the most successful decades in its history, making state and federal laws friendlier to gun owners and dealers. And this year, its annual meeting features a friendly call from Mitt Romney, who expects to have their endorsement for the White House. Robert Siegel talks to Ari Shapiro, who was at the event.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Mitt Romney spoke in St. Louis this afternoon. It was his first major speech since Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, clearing Romney's path to the Republican nomination. And his choice of venue sends a clear message. Romney addressed the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us from the St. Louis Convention Center where the NRA meeting is taking place. Hello, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And this meeting is not only about gun rights. It's much broader, almost a kind of mini Republican convention. So what message did Romney bring today?

SHAPIRO: Well, his message was not focused specifically on guns. It was what his campaign describes as first in a series of major speeches designed to show a contrast with President Obama. Mitt Romney talked about big themes, individual liberty, freedom, in contrast to what he describes as President Obama's vision of a big government that controls every detail of American's lives. Here's part of what he said.

MITT ROMNEY: Freedom is the victim of unbounded government appetite and so is economic growth and job growth and wage growth. And as government takes more and more, there's less and less incentive to take risk and to invest and to innovate and to hire people.

SHAPIRO: Now, Robert, by my count, it was about 17 minutes into the speech until he mentioned guns for the first time, which gives you some indication that his audience here was not the NRA specifically. It was a national audience looking ahead to the general election.

SIEGEL: How natural a fit is this for Mitt Romney?

SHAPIRO: You know, he's spoken at the NRA convention a couple times before in 2008, 2009. He sent them a video-taped message in 2011. But you go back earlier than that to his years as Massachusetts governor, running for Senate in Massachusetts in the '90s and he was not what you would call an enthusiastic NRA supporter back then. He bought a lifetime membership just before starting his last presidential run in 2007, so this speech is sort of part of a pattern of Romney trying to show gun owners, I'm one of you - that he supports their point of view and that if he's elected, he'll be an advocate for their issues.

SIEGEL: Well, what sense did you get of how people at the NRA convention responded to Romney?

SHAPIRO: Well, I'll tell you, Newt Gingrich took the stage right after Mitt Romney and people leapt to their feet cheering for Gingrich. I heard, yeah, Newt, from the audience. I heard somebody say, take it to Tampa, meaning stay in the race. They were polite to Mitt Romney, but that was not exactly the response. Here's a woman I spoke with named Terese Abenhouse(ph). She's a retired nurse here in St. Louis.

She just bought a lifetime membership to the NRA after having been a year by year member. And this is what she said to me about Romney.

TERESE ABENHOUSE: I'm glad to have anybody that's on the conservative side, even if we have to nudge him to that direction.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel like you do have to nudge him in that direction?

ABENHOUSE: Well, I think he had to be a little bit moderate when he lived on the East Coast. He has to realize that we're fly-over country.

SHAPIRO: You say that with pride.

ABENHOUSE: Yes, I am very proud of being fly-over country.

SHAPIRO: Kind of appropriate in that sometimes disparaging term for the middle of the country there. And I heard that same theme from many people I spoke to. The general reaction is maybe he was not my first choice in the Republican primary, but at this point, we've got his back, even if he isn't one of us.

SIEGEL: And for comparison, President Obama's record on the Second Amendment?

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, to the dismay of gun control groups, President Obama has been nearly silent on the issue of guns, but people here at the NRA convention think he may be saving his ammunition, so to speak, for a second term. And they also point out that he doesn't have to push legislation. He can appoint judges, Supreme Court justices, heads of departments and agencies. They have a special ire for Attorney General Eric Holder.

So President Obama's stance on gun control may have disappointed his allies, but it doesn't seem to have won him any friends in this crowd either.

SIEGEL: And just briefly, Ari, the Treyvon Martin shooting brought a lot of attention to Stand Your Ground laws around the country. Was that talked about at all or has it been discussed much at the convention (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: You know, I've asked people what they think about it. Obviously, they say the Martin shooting was a tragedy, but they try to divorce that from the larger issue of these laws, which, on the whole, the NRA supports.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro, speaking with us from the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. It's in St. Louis.

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