WASHINGTON - Leading GOP presidential contenders yesterday swore to defend gun owners and punish criminals, drawing mixed responses from a National Rifle Association membership wary of several of the candidates' histories on gun control.
Under pressure to defend their own records, the candidates took shots at each other.
Arizona Senator John McCain, who has a solid rating on guns with the NRA but has drawn anger for his authorship of campaign finance law limiting the election advertising by groups like the NRA, reminded the group that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani had once called the powerful lobby "extremists." He also pointed out that those who occasionally hunt "varmints," as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney boasts he has done, are not necessarily committed to gun rights.
Romney, who signed a bill in 2004 banning assault weapons, called for the evisceration of the McCain-authored campaign finance reform law, which the NRA despises because it controls the kinds of television ads they can run during an election campaign.
And former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, who has a strong rating with the NRA for his opposition to gun control, distributed a document attacking both Romney and Giuliani for their past support of laws limiting gun rights. As for himself, "check the record. That's about all I probably need to say," Thompson told about 500 senior NRA members at a Washington conference.
"I will say the same thing I've been saying since 1994," he added, a not-so-veiled shot at Romney and Giuliani, who sought to diminish their past support for gun control measures while promising to appoint "strict constructionist" judges who would interpret the Second Amendment to apply to individuals' rights to own firearms.
Giuliani - who, unlike Romney, appeared in person - struggled to finesse his past record on guns, including his role in a pending lawsuit against gun manufacturers. Giuliani acknowledged that he and the NRA were not "100 percent" in agreement, but pledged he would punish gun-toting criminals harshly while leaving law-abiding gun owners alone.
"A person's home is their castle. People have a right to protect themselves in their homes," Giuliani said. "I understand that the right to bear arms is just as important a part of the constitution as the rights to free speech and the other rights," he said.
The former mayor, who casts himself as a dedicated law-and-order candidate, drew ire from gun rights groups when he became the only Republican mayor to participate in a lawsuit against the gun industry. Giuliani said that suit has taken "twists and turns I disagree with," and explained that at the time he joined the action, he was trying to use every tool available to reduce crime in New York.
Several NRA members said they appreciated that Giuliani showed up to speak and were pleased that he seemed to be moving to a more pro-gun stance. But they said they were not yet convinced that Giuliani would be a strong advocate for gun rights in the White House.
"Obviously, he has . . . modified his position. If he was elected, I would certainly support him. But I don't think he would be my first choice," said Howard Pollack, a member from Washington state and former president of the NRA.
Tom Crum from Orland Park, Ill., said he thought Giuliani was a strong candidate but was still unconvinced that the former mayor was committed to defending gun owners. "I'm not really clear whether he truly understands what the NRA is about," Crum said.
The NRA rates candidates and lawmakers but does not always issue endorsements. The group will hold a series of candidate forums around the country but has not decided whether to endorse in the presidential primaries, NRA president Wayne LaPierre said in an interview.
Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico was the only Democrat invited to address the group. Richardson, who has a high rating from the NRA, appeared by videotape, but did not endorse any specific gun policy. Instead, he urged NRA members to stay involved in the primary elections for both parties, and added, "Your voice needs to be heard. When I'm president, it will be."
Anticipating their cautious reception by the NRA, Giuliani yesterday distributed a document showcasing his efforts to control crime, while Romney announced that he had received the endorsement of Craig Sandler, a former NRA executive and former Nashua police chief.
Further, Romney's campaign pointed to several bills he signed into law in Massachusetts that streamlined regulations for hunters, sport shooters, and makers of target pistols. The campaign also says the assault weapons ban that Romney signed included provisions sought by hunters and gun owners, including lengthening firearm licenses from four to six years and reinstating a 90-day grace period for renewing licenses.
LaPierre said the group would look at the "past, present, and future" commitments made by presidential contenders. As for Romney, LaPierre said "I like what I heard" in Romney's video, in which the former governor pledged to uphold gun rights and to keep his door "always open" to gun rights activists.
But as for Romney's past record backing some gun control, "he's going to have to continue to explain that," LaPierre said.
Susan Milligan can be reached at email@example.com.