Romney's relationship with gun enthusiasts in the spotlight as NRA comes to St. Louis

Romney's relationship with gun enthusiasts in the spotlight as NRA comes to St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS • On his way to shoring up the Republican nomination for president, Mitt Romney faced off against one rival who carries a pistol while jogging and another who stopped for target practice on the campaign trail.

Romney, however, has had trouble demonstrating familiarity with hunting and firearms. His sometimes tenuous relationship with gun owners, which will be in the spotlight when he addresses the National Rifle Association on Friday at its convention in St. Louis, reflects a theme that has long nagged at Romney's candidacy.

While he cultivated an air of inevitability in the GOP race, Romney has not inspired a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among grass-roots conservatives.

The contrast may be particularly acute among NRA members, who vastly prefer Romney to the Democratic incumbent but look warily at his time as governor of Massachusetts, his support for certain gun control measures and his sometimes half-cocked attempts to describe himself as an outdoorsman.

At times, Romney has boasted of his independence from the NRA and once vowed that he would not "chip away" at tough gun laws in Massachusetts.

Supporters urge Romney to simply be himself, that the former venture capitalist and Harvard Business School graduate need not reinvent himself to energize the Republican base. Romney may already be following that tack when it comes to his hunting experience, which he has been underplaying — rather than overplaying, as he was criticized for doing in 2008.

However, that pivot may not be enough to win over gun advocates who populate one of the nation's most influential special interest groups. As many NRA members see it, Romney is just not one of them.

"He's not a sportsman. He's not a gun guy," said Ray Kohout, a lifetime NRA member and principal of Heizer Firearms, a pistol manufacturer in St. Louis. "He's trying to be one, and he'll try to be one at the NRA convention, but that's just not his real person."

Much of the criticism of Romney's stance on gun issues stems from his political career in Massachusetts, one of the nation's most liberal states.

While running against Democratic icon Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney supported the Brady Bill, which instituted background checks on gun purchases, and a federal assault weapons ban.

"That's not going to make me the hero of the NRA," Romney said at the time.

While running for governor in 2002, Romney said: "We do have tough gun laws in Massachusetts. I support them. I won't chip away at them."

Romney's tenure as governor, from 2003 to 2007, provided more fodder for critics. But opponents have, at times, taken liberties with his record.

It's true that in 2004 Romney signed a state assault weapons ban bill, declaring the firearms "instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people."

But the gun lobby actually supported the bill because it contained provisions seen as friendly to gun owners, such as creating a process to appeal the denial of a firearms permit.

Romney also ushered in lower-profile changes such as free replacements for individuals who misplaced their gun permits and changing the size of the actual firearms license so that it could be carried more easily.

Previously, "it was stupid — you had to fold the thing up to get it in your wallet," recalled Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners' Action League in Massachusetts.

Romney's record on gun rights has piqued so much interest, Wallace said, that the group has stopped doing interviews on the subject .

"We've had so many people ask questions about it," Wallace said.

Romney's party rivals have dissected his stance on gun control in much the same way that they have taken apart his views on abortion and health care.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who demonstrated his marksmanship while on the campaign trail, has accused Romney of increasing taxes on gun licenses by "400 percent."

Under Romney, Massachusetts approved raising the fee on gun licenses from $25 to $100 (a 300 percent increase), although Romney initially wanted to raise it only to $75. Later, the state increased the duration of the license, from four to six years.

Still, it may be hard for Romney to shake the perception that he is camouflaging himself as a gun enthusiast to rack up political points.

In the buildup to his previous run for president, Romney described himself as a member of the NRA. Later it was disclosed that he had joined the organization just months before he filed campaign paperwork.

In 2007, Romney described himself as a gun owner, when the guns actually belonged to one of his sons, who kept them at a vacation home in Utah. Campaigning that same year in New Hampshire, Romney said he has "been a hunter pretty much all my life."

It was later reported that, at the time, Romney had only been hunting twice, including once at a political event sponsored by the Republican Governors' Association.

Since then, Romney has sought to shift his rhetoric on the topic, although he has actually gained some hunting experience.

"I'm not a serious hunter," Romney said during a debate earlier this year, where he made mention of an elk hunting trip in Montana.

That hunting trip took place in 2010, with a supporter, outdoorsman Rob Keck, who is also accompanying Romney to the NRA convention.

Keck, in an interview, said Romney was unable to fell an elk but did hit the mark while the hunting party was aiming for pheasants.

"He's a great wing shot," Keck said.

Keck said the presidential hopeful handled himself admirably "in some really tough country" and is attempting to gain a better hold on issues important to sportsmen, even if Romney doesn't fall into that category.

"The fact that he wants to understand it better, appreciate it better. ... I think it is a step in the right direction," said Keck, currently the director of conservation for Missouri-based Bass Pro Shops.

The NRA convention kicks off in downtown St. Louis with a star-packed lineup Friday that demonstrates the organization's vast political influence.

Scheduled speakers at the ticketed event include Republican Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin and four members of Congress. Romney will be joined by one of his remaining rivals for the GOP nomination, Newt Gingrich, as well as former foe Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who may be better remembered by NRA members for putting a bullet in a coyote that threatened his dog while he was jogging. Santorum was scheduled to speak before he suspended his campaign Tuesday.

"This is not going to be an apathetic year for gun owners," Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's longtime executive vice president, said in an interview in St. Louis this week. "They clearly understand that their individual right to own a firearm under the Constitution is at stake."

LaPierre did not have overwhelming praise for Romney's tenure in Massachussetts — "he tried to help people up there, and he was supportive of the Second Amendment," he said — but suggested many NRA members already know how they will vote in November.

"If you talk to most Second Amendment supporters in the country, they'll tell you, 'Anybody but President Obama,'" LaPierre said.

For Romney — who got a "B" rating from the group while running for governor — the challenge Friday will be to energize NRA members enough that they share that enthusiasm when they go back to their home states.

Jerry Ardolino, a Texan who is coming to the convention to sell "Original Dirty Harry" shoulder holsters, says he sees Romney as a cross "between Ronald Reagan and a Teddy Roosevelt Republican."

Ardolino says gun owners care more about Romney's GOP credentials — "they like that hard-working, American family man" — than whether he knows how to handle a rifle.

"Sportsman has nothing to do with it," Ardolino said. "Many NRA members that I know aren't sportsmen at all."

Ballwin congressional hopeful Ann Wagner, whose family owns multiple guns, said she is confident that Romney will be able to connect with gun owners at the convention Friday.

The key? Authenticity, she said — which rivals and even some supporters might say is not Romney's strongest attribute.

"You don't have to pack a gun to support the Second Amendment," Wagner said. "You have to be who you are. The key to actually connecting to people is not trying to be something you're not."

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