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At NRA meeting, Romney works to win over skeptics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2012 - Mitt Romney tried to convince a sometimes skeptical meeting of the National Rifle Association Friday that his commitment to fighting for Second Amendment rights is genuine, strong and long-held.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, still in the race against Romney for the GOP presidential nomination, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, who withdrew from the race earlier this week, appeared to have a stronger base of support from the “Celebration of American Values” at the NRA annual convention at America’s Center downtown.

But there was little doubt that no matter who they thought had the strongest stand on the right to bear arms, the man for whom they had the strongest dislike is Barack Obama.

Starting his talk by saying he wanted to give two positive words about the Obama administration, Gingrich drew a roar from the crowd when he added: “I think the words good bye are very positive.”

And Wayne LaPierre, the group’s longtime CEO, also worked the audience up by challenging another long-time antagonist — the national media — to tell the truth about the NRA and what it stands for.

Asking group after group to stand and show how broadly based the organization is — from law-enforcement officers to health-care workers to teachers to stay-at-home moms and more — LaPierre told the media: “See us for who we really are, and see if you can tell it straight.”

LaPierre and the others stressed that to help defeat Obama in the fall and restore the Second Amendment to what the NRA considers its proper place, the organization and its members need to go “All In” between now and November: Fight for all of its victories, all of its rights and all of its freedoms.

“Everything is on the line in 2012,” a statement of principles for the group declared.

“When the sun goes down on Election Day,” LaPierre said, “Barack Obama will have us  to thank for his defeat.”

One of the issues that got the biggest response from the crowd was criticism of Attorney General Eric Holder and the administration’s “fast and furious” program that led to weapons winding up in the hands of Mexican drug dealers. Playing a video that showed Holder in 1995 talking about “brainwashing” Americans to make gun use as unpopular as cigarettes, Chris Cox, the NRA’s legislative director, told the forum:

“President Obama needs to fire Eric Holder, and in November, we need to fire the president.”

Romney, who appears headed for the electoral showdown with the president this fall, got his biggest ovation from the crowd when he introduced “my sweetheart, Ann Romney.” Comments earlier this week about her having never held a job have become a Republican rallying cry, and she gave a shout out to all moms and dads working for their families.

“I happen to believe all moms are working moms,” her husband said, “and if you have five sons, your work is never over.”

Noting that some people call the NRA and its members a single-issue group, Romney said, “That is high praise when the single issue you are fighting for is freedom.”

He expanded on that theme, saying that he thought the Obama administration has worked to limit Americans’ economic, religious and personal freedoms by expanding government rather than letting Americans be free to build their own prosperity.

“This administration thinks the economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small,” he said. “The truth is, the economy is struggling because government is too big.”

“The answer for a weak economy is not more government,” Romney added. “It is more freedom.”

Romney criticized Obama for seeing the constitution as a living, evolving document instead of he called something that is “timeless and defining.”

“I don’t want to transform America,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “I want to return America to the principles that made this nation great.”

Gingrich and Santorum sounded similar themes. The former House speaker said the NRA has been too timid in pushing for gun rights worldwide, and said he would submit to the United Nations a treaty that would expand the right to bear arms “to every person on the planet.”

Santorum — who told the approving crowd that his wife could not join him because she was home with their ill daughter, Bella, but she “owns way more guns than I do” — said the greatness of the United States comes not from its governmental programs but from the rights that all Americans have inherently.

Calling on the NRA members to make sure conservatives win elections all up and down the ticket this fall, he added: “This is about America’s freedoms.”

And, he added, though she’s only 3 years old, his daughter Bella is now a life member of the NRA. “I hope it’s a long life,” he said to strong applause.

Skepticism inside and out

The response from the crowd at the forum to the certain applause lines from the politicians was not always mirrored by people who were viewing the vast exhibit hall in the convention center Friday morning.

Standing in a long line waiting to get their picture taken with R. Lee Ermey — a retired Marine gunnery instructor and actor who was wearing a red, white and blue shirt emblazoned with the logo “Team Glock” — Jeff Denzler of Argenta, Ill., said gun rights are his No. 1 issue when it comes to deciding who he will vote for this fall.

“I think everything follows,” he said.

So which of the Republican candidates most closely mirrors his feelings about the right to bear arms?

“I hate to say it,” he said, “but Ron Paul, because he supports it over everyone else.”

Who would he vote for in the expected race between Romney and Obama? Denzler said he hasn’t decided yet.

John Wood of Indianapolis, standing next to him, said he thinks Romney is a little weak on the Second Amendment, but he is teachable.

“I feel like Mr. Romney has a few things to learn,” he said, “and the NRA can help him. Mr. Obama has no idea about the Bill of Rights.”

Pointing to the crowd milling about, Wood added:

“This is America. These are the people who live in this country and have made this country what it is. To take away our rights is totally wrong. Mr. Obama and the entire Democratic Party have pretty much proven they want to take away our rights.”

To Cathy King of Columbia, Mo., Romney’s record on the right to bear arms is one that matches her own attitude.

“If we don’t defend ourselves,” she said, “who will defend us? Each individual is responsible for defending themselves and their home. You can’t depend on anyone else to do it.”

She said Romney would have “plenty of people around to keep him in check. Obama wants to make it one big government. Romney wouldn’t do that.”

Outside the convention hall, members of organized labor held up signs indicating they weren’t happy at all with Romney.

“Romney: Mr. 1%,” said one. Another read: “Romney: 100% Out of Touch.”

Steve Johnson, an organizer with Teamsters Local 688, recalled how Romney had expressed his views against gun rights during earlier campaigns, including support for the Brady bill. He put his doubts this way: “I know a hunter when I see one. He’s not a hunter.”

And Mike Melson, with UAW Local 2250, called Romney a “flip flopper. He can’t be trusted.”

Asked who he would vote for in a Romney-Obama race, Melson demurred.

“That’s a wonderful conversation for another day,” he said. “We have a thousand messages, but today our message is, he’s a flip flopper and can’t be trusted.”

Guns, holsters, targets and more

In the exhibit hall, convention goers had a wide range of merchandise and services to take a look at.

There were guns to heft, holsters to put them in, sights to improve their aim, plugs for their ears, targets for practice, clothing to wear, animal trophies to be stuffed and safes for keeping weapons when they aren’t in use.

Seminars included ones on dog obedience, advanced sausage processing, methods of concealed carry and one titled “Refuse to be a Victim.”

One popular booth instructed women in the Flashbang, a holster that they can tuck under their shirt beneath their bra. It was sold in various styles, including the Marilyn, the Sophia and the Betty.

And while there was a smattering of Cardinals clothing in the crowd, to remind people of the big event happening on the other end of downtown, most of the colorful T-shirts had slogans more relevant to the issue at hand:

“The Gathering Storm. We’re from the Government…and we’re here for your Guns.”

“African Lion,” another said, with a picture of the king of beasts, with a photo of the president underneath and the caption: “Lying African.”

“Guns don’t kill people,” read still another. “Dads with pretty daughters do.”

Showing a target with a number of hits bunched toward the center, another shirt read: “This is my idea of Group Therapy.”

And one young man’s shirt had pictures of a handgun and a Bible, with the legend:

“Two things every American should know how to use. Neither of which are taught in school.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.