A pack of 2016 Republicans made their pitch for president Friday before the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Nashville, blasting the Obama administration for what they described as an erosion of freedom while punctuating their remarks with sharp enthusiasm for Second Amendment rights.
The contenders also used the principles behind gun rights to fire off criticism of President Barack Obama’s handling of national security, further signaling the influential role that foreign policy is expected to have in the presidential election.
More than 70,000 people descended upon Music City to attend the convention, but tickets to see the candidates speak in a five-hour long forum was limited to about 5,000 people.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was the only declared candidate on stage Friday. Other potential contenders included former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
1. Candidates show off gun credentials
As tradition at the annual NRA gathering, the speakers tried to establish their own longstanding history with guns in different ways. Santorum held up his concealed carry card before the audience and boasted that his wife requested ammunition for an upcoming birthday.
Walker talked about bow-hunting, while Huckabee perused the firearm vendor hall and later listed on stage the guns he grew up with, including his first BB gun at the age of five. “I still have the same gun in mint condition,” he said.
Perry screened a video showing off his shooting skills (the same video was also shown at the 2013 NRA convention). The former governor also crowed about the gun manufacturers he recruited to Texas from other states.
For Bush, the NRA meeting was a chance to tout his record, including his A+ rating from the NRA, before a conservative crowd that’s largely skeptical of him due to his more moderate positions on immigration and Common Core.
Bush proclaimed to the audience that he’s “been with you in trenches” as an “NRA life member since 1986.” He also listed the gun rights measures he enacted or maintained as former governor, and defended the stand your ground laws in Florida that became a hot topic following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“You shouldn’t have to choose between being attacked or going to jail,” he said.
Fiorina, who joined the forum via video, admitted her husband was the gun owner in her family, but argued that just because she’s not a “hunter or a skeet shooter,” it doesn’t mean she’s not a supporter of Second Amendment rights.
2. Freedom in the crosshairs
A common theme among nearly all the speeches was assailing Democrats and Obama for what many critics see as repeated attacks against personal freedom. Multiple speakers brought up the religious freedom debate that exploded after Indiana passed — then later changed — a law that opponents saw as discriminatory against gay and lesbian couples.
“If these large forces can conspire to crush the First Amendment, it won’t be long before they come after the Second Amendment,” Jindal said, intertwining religious rights with gun rights.
The speakers also tried to weave in what they consider Obama’s violation of presidential powers via executive action on issues like immigration. Bush said the Constitution is not like a “breakfast buffet, while Perry said it’s not like a “cafeteria plan.”
“You don’t get to just pick and choose the amendments you like and discard the ones that don’t agree with your political agenda,” Perry said.
Santorum said he’s worried about rights being slowly chipped away. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to have this happen on my watch.”
3. Foreign policy a big topic
The gun control debate has largely shifted from the national level to the state level since a gun control package failed to advance in the Senate following the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.
And with foreign policy so predominant in politics at the moment, the contenders largely trained their fire on the Obama administration for what they consider his weak actions defending the homeland from overseas threats.
“Why don’t you focus more on keeping weapons out of the hands of Islamic terrorists and less on keeping weapons out of the hands of law-abiding Americans?” Bush said, speaking rhetorically to the president.
Bush also argued that the best form of national defense “is a nation of free men and free women exercising their Second Amendment rights,” adding that the “the Second Amendment is the original Homeland Security Act.”
Graham, who said he’s retiring from the Air Force this year, issued a blistering critique of the president’s foreign policy record.
“The next president of the United States needs not only be able to defend the Second Amendment but defend this nation,” he said. “The next time you vote, make sure you’re voting for somebody that knows what the hell they’re doing when it comes to being commander in chief.”
Mac Rojo, a former Marine and retired police officer from Holbrook, Arizona, said he was impressed with Cruz, Graham and Huckabee at the event but was also surprised at how well Bush came across, he said.
“It’d be nice if they could be the next entire Cabinet,” he said, referring to all the Republicans who spoke.
4. Marco Rubio previews his announcement
Rubio delivered a strong performance that came just a few days before he’s set to make a major announcement on his political future.
“In just three days in Miami I will announce whether I will run for president, re-election to the Senate or commissioner of the National Football League,” he joked. “The NFL commissioner is probably a little too powerful for me.”
His remarks at the NRA touched on a broad set of issues but mostly focused on national security, a theme Rubio will likely embrace in his potential White House campaign.
“Anyone who seeks the presidency must recognize that in this century, there is no such thing as a remote problem. Our economy is increasingly global, and our people are increasingly bound to the affairs of the world,” he said. “A threat a hemisphere away such as ISIS can become a threat down the street almost overnight.”
5. Ben Carson plays defense
Carson has rocketed to GOP fame in the past two years, but he raised questions among some conservatives about his stance on guns after saying on Glenn Beck’s show in 2013 that people who live in large cities should avoid having semi-automatic weapons.
He has attempted to clarify the statement many time since then, saying he doesn’t want those kinds of weapons to fall in the hands of the wrong people.
“Just for the record, let me make it extremely clear that I am extremely pro-Second Amendment and there’s no question about it,” he said Friday. “And I would never, never allow for anybody to tamper with that right because it is so important.”
Carson, who grew up in Detroit, also detailed a personal history with guns unlike the others. He talked about drug dealers in his neighborhood and seeing “people lying on the ground with bullet holes.” Later as a surgeon, he operated on people with gunshot wounds to their heads. “All of that was horrible,” he said.
But, getting back to his support for gun rights, he went on to argue that it wasn’t “nearly as horrible as having a population that is defenseless against a group of tyrants who have arms.”
6. Clinton as the top foe
Just hours before the forum began Friday, news broke that Clinton would be announcing her presidential bid on Sunday, and the NRA event kicked off with a skewering of the former secretary of state by the NRA’s fiery Wayne LaPierre.
Along with hitting her policies, LaPierre listed a number of scandals associated with Clinton, saying she “has more ’-gates’ than a south Texas cattle ranch.”
While most of the contenders left it up to LaPierre to blast Clinton, Cruz and Jindal were happy to take on the likely Democratic frontrunner.
“This weekend Hillary Clinton is announcing for president,” Cruz said. “Well, I’ll tell you, if Hillary Clinton is going to join with Barack Obama and the gun grabbers and come after our guns then what I say is come and take it
For his part, Jindal brought up Clinton’s use of the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” when she was first lady to describe critics of her husband.
“Now she was wrong about that conspiracy part. But you know what, she really wasn’t wrong about that vast part. This is a pretty vast group,” he said. We’re going to show her exactly how vast we are next year.”