Mitt Romney did pledge his commitment to protect the Second Amendment rights for Americans during his speech Friday to members of the National Rifle Association in St. Louis. But it was only after he discussed economic, religious and personal freedom, as well as banking, environmental and healthcare policies.
The former Massachusetts governor, currently the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has a muddled past when it comes to agreeing with the powerful conservative interest group on a variety of gun-related issues. So instead of blatantly pandering to the audience with hunting tales or discussions of his gun ownership, Romney instead tried to woo them on their principles.
"So many of the big issues in this campaign turn on our understanding of the Constitution and how it was meant to guide the life of our nation," Romney said. "This president is moving us away from our founders' vision. Instead of limited government, he is leading us toward limited freedom and limited opportunity."
Romney's entire speech focused on outlining the philosophical differences between what his administration would offer versus the Obama administration. In short, Romney seemed to be saying, I'm going to be the nominee and I'm better for you than him.
"This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small. The truth is we're struggling because our government is too big," Romney said to cheers. "Instead of expanding the government, I'm going to shrink it. Instead of raising taxes, I'm going to cut them. The answer for a weak economy is not more government. It is more freedom."
Romney's address was likely made easier since his last major–though long-shot–rival for the GOP nomination, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, dropped out earlier in the week. Santorum is most popular with evangelical Christians and some of the party's most conservative wings, and his continued presence would have put pressure on Romney to continue burnishing his right-wing credentials.
But as a result, Romney was able to escape his big guns' rights speech without wading too much into the details about where his views on gun ownership do (and do not) line up with the NRA. While running for Senate in 1994, he supported mandatory waiting periods for gun sales and federal legislation that would have banned the sale of around 20 assault weapons. As Massachusetts' governor, he signed a permanent ban on the sale of assault weapons—such as the AK-47 and the Uzi—while quadrupling gun licensing fees. He made no mention of such restrictions on Friday.
"The right to bear arms is so plainly stated, so unambiguous, that liberals have a hard time challenging it directly," he said. "Instead, they've been employing every imaginable rouse and ploy to restrict and to defeat it."
Romney also knocked Obama for imposing new gun laws, a wide fear among NRA members during the 2008 presidential campaign.
"We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners," Romney said, though he did not cite any specific new such law or proposal made by the Obama administration. In fact, many liberals have been disappointed by the president's lack of action on gun control.
Finally, Romney built the case for support of his candidacy from NRA members by discussing the implications of what a second term for Obama would mean for the Supreme Court.
"In his first term, we've seen this president try to browbeat the Supreme Court. In a second term, he would remake it," Romney said. "Our freedoms would be in the hands of an Obama Court, not just for four years, but for the next 40. And we must not let that happen."
The Romney campaign made careful political calculus that it would be best to play up broad themes of freedom rather than have their candidate pay homage to specific issues that are priorities for the largest national gun group, known for its powerful messaging and ability to turn out the vote.