By Frank Miniter
The scene was common enough in American politics: 500 people seated in a ballroom at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., television cameras glaring at a podium, and a full cast of 2008 presidential candidates set to speak. Only the event wasn't common at all. The candidates came to a first-ever symposium where they would affirm their support for the Second Amendment of the Constitution before a crowd of National Rifle Association members. Just a few election cycles ago political pundits might have deemed the event poor presidential politics.
Or so Vice President Al Gore thought. In 2000, Gore licked his index finger, held it in the political winds, and decided being anti-gun was smart national politics. He thought a post-Columbine nation was poised to pass sweeping gun control. He was sure the Million Mom March was pure populist genius. Then America's 80 million gun owners taught him a hard lesson: Americans cherish their constitutional rights. In fact, the NRA-inspired rebuke of Gore's anti-Second Amendment stance cost him his home state of Tennessee. As a result, in 2004, Senator John Kerry tried a more deceptive strategy. He went hunting. But, thanks to the NRA, no one was fooled. Kerry had received a 100-percent rating from the anti-hunting Humane Society of the United States and had backed legislation that would have banned the firearms and ammunition most hunters use. Thanks in part to the nation's gun owners going to the polls armed with all that information, Kerry became a victim of his own hypocrisy.
Because of the experiences of Gore and Kerry, the 2008 presidential candidates know that the Right to Keep and Bear Arms is as mainstream as baseball in America and so, unless they have something to hide, they'd be wise to make their positions clear. To give them a forum to do so, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris Cox hosted "A Celebration of American Values" on September 21-22, 2007, the first event in what will be a national tour. The results were clarifying. Politicians spelled out their views on the Second Amendment before the primaries and caucuses take place, thereby allowing voters to pick their party's candidates effectively. And the crowd was animated. Print and television reporters gave the event unprecedented ink and airtime. C-SPAN aired the event live-and has rerun it several times since. A New York Sun op-ed by Kenneth Blackwell accurately summed up the importance of the event: "In each of the last four even-year general elections gun owners have had a massive impact. And the National Rifle Association has proven to everyone that if you want to win the presidency, earning the support of gun owners and Second Amendment defenders might be the deciding factor. ... The NRA is in a stronger position than ever to influence the 2008 elections. "
With that goal in mind, ILA Executive Director Chris Cox said, "This forum was not intended to serve as the springboard for an NRA endorsement in the presidential campaign. As we have historically done, we will carefully weigh every candidates past actions and future commitments on all issues affecting the Second Amendment before making an endorsement decision."
NRA members came to hear and question Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee; in fact, before the end of the Conference, they heard from Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.), former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), former Representative Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. And there were taped messages from California Rep. Duncan Hunter, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
By the end of the day America's gun owners found out if their candidates believe that the Second Amendment, as former Governor Mike Huckabee declared, "means what it says and says what it means," or if their candidates would work to take away Americans' unique Right to Keep and Bear Arms under the guise of some historically twisted, collective-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment.
The event received phenomenal media attention because the presidential race is already in full swing; in fact, the race could be solidified with primaries this winter and gun rights could be a defining issue. As a result, the NRA is moving fast to make sure NRA members have the information they need to choose candidates who will respect the Second Amendment. But the NRA can't succeed without its members' support. To make this point clear, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre urged NRA members to make sure their friends, neighbors, or spouses who believe in a true reading of the Bill of Rights become NRA members and register to vote.
To be sure America's gun owners are not caught snoozing, the NRA has launched an ambitious membership drive in cooperation with hundreds of businesses small and large to recruit new NRA members. In a major announcement at the event, Mike Golden, CEO of Smith & Wesson, explained that because of this new industry initiative "all America's gun owners should wake up, look around and see they must join the NRA, the civil-liberties organization defending their Second Amendment rights."
Doug Painter, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told readers of SHOT Business, whose primary audience is firearm industry retailers and wholesalers, "We should never underestimate the bedrock value of the voting bloc represented by our customers, the millions of gun owners across the country who place a high political value on their firearm freedoms." In that same article, former NRA President Sandy Froman said, "We must start building the NRA membership immediately, so that we have a large grassroots army trained and in place for the next election cycle." (Logon to www.insureyourgunrights.com to see what you can do to help.)
Senator John McCain Arizona Senator John McCain has been widely criticized for fighting for and passing the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a law that prohibits organizations, such as the NRA, from running issue ads that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election. The NRA was in the forefront in its opposition to the law's free-speech ban. McCain addressed such disagreements in his speech by saying, "Over the years, we've not agreed on every issue. We had differences over my efforts to standardize sales procedures at gun shows and to clean up our campaign finance system. I understand and respect your position."
Sen. John McCain
Throughout his address McCain won applause with declarations such as, "The Second Amendment is unique in the world and at the core of our constitutional freedoms. It guarantees an individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms. To argue anything else is to reject the clear meaning of our Founding Fathers." He also said, "I oppose devious efforts to use lawsuits to bankrupt our firearms manufacturers."
Later in his speech McCain announced, "The citizens of the nation's capital do not enjoy the Right to Keep and Bear arms. That's why I've co-sponsored legislation repealing the ban on firearms possession for law-abiding citizens in the District of Columbia. The Second Amendment is not just for rural Arizona; it's for all of America."
McCain also feinted at Senator John Kerry's attempts to overshadow his anti-gun legislation by going hunting, pointing out that there's a hunting myth in national politics: "If you show your bona fides by hunting ducks or varmints or quail, it makes up for support of gun control. This myth overlooks a fundamental truth: The Second Amendment is not about hunting, it's about freedom."
Senator Fred Thompson
Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson was the next high-profile candidate to address the audience. He did so after a video on his accomplishments titled "The Hunt for Red November" aired. He won the crowd with: "I do remember a relationship from way back, from the time that Charlton Heston came to Tennessee in 1994, and I formed a friendship with that great American and watched him hobble across the state with me on a bad hip and go through pain to help me win my first election in the United States Senate."
Then Sen. Thompson got to the basis of his philosophy by saying, "I never subscribed to the notion that it made our country safer by infringing on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. I think back to the 'A' rating I got from this organization and the endorsements that I was proud to receive. So it's not just a matter of promises made, as far as I'm concerned, it's a matter of commitments that have been kept."
Later he pointed out, "My philosophy does not depend on my geography." And he told the assembly, "I never subscribed to the notion that it made our country safer by infringing on the Second Amendment." In answer to a question on the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, Thompson said, "...the Constitution does mean what is says and is not restricted to protection of militias."
Governor Mitt Romney
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's taped speech was played on screens in which he said, "Let me speak very directly and candidly about where I stand. I support the Second Amendment as one of the most basic and fundamental rights of every American. It's essential to our functioning as a free society, as are all the liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights. I've been proud to have the support of pro-Second Amendment and sportsman's groups in my previous runs for public office. I'd be proud to have your support again as I campaign for president."
Then he commented, "I'll ask Congress to repeal the McCain-Feingold law which sought to impose restrictions on the First Amendment rights of groups like the NRA to advocate for issues we care about."
Mayor Rudy Giuliani
The next speaker was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a national spokesman who advocated for passage of the Clinton semi-auto ban and supported passage of federal gun-owner licensing. As gun owners know, he also championed lawsuits to hold legal firearms manufacturers responsible for criminals who use firearms to commit violent crime. Prohibiting these lawsuits resulted in a hard-fought battle led by NRA's Institute for Legislative Action that ended with the passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush.
After his speech, in answer to the question, "do you still believe that the American gun companies should be held liable for the unforeseeable criminal misuse of their products?" Giuliani replied, "I did initiate that lawsuit back in 2000. Since then, I think that lawsuit has taken several turns and several twists that I don't agree with. I also think that there have been subsequent intervening events-September 11-which cast somewhat of a different light on the Second Amendment and Second Amendment rights. Doesn't change the fundamental rights, but maybe it highlights the necessity for them more. So I think that lawsuit has gone in a direction that I probably don't agree with at this point."
In his speech Giuliani stressed his law enforcement credentials saying that when he took over as Mayor of New York City crime was out of control. Giuliani said he reduced the murder rate by 66 percent by holding people responsible for their actions and that he'd do the same as president. He later summed up his point by saying, "The bottom line is we need to step up enforcement against gun crimes and leave law-abiding citizens alone."
Giuliani explained that he read and analyzed the Parker v. The District of Columbia decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a ruling that overturned the D.C. gun ban, a three-decade old prohibition on the possession of firearms within D.C. Giuliani deemed the Parker decision "an excellent example of strict constructionism." In Parker, Senior Judge Lawrence H. Silberman, joined by Judge Thomas B. Griffith, concluded that "the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms." The decision has since been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and Giuliani concluded that "the Parker decision should be upheld ... to underscore the Castle Doctrine."
Giuliani's views on gun control garnered most of the newscasters' attention. In fact, later that evening CNN reporter Carol Costello asked LaPierre: "So, Rudy Giuliani stood up there and he said, 'I know you're not going to agree with some of what I have to say, but you can believe this, that I will put into place the plan that I have.' How did that go over with the NRA?"
LaPierre responded that, "this whole forum today was the first step in a process of our involvement in the presidential race. We're going to send this out to our members. We're going to listen to what they have to say about all the candidates. And then we are going to do what's right to defend the Second Amendment."
Governor Mike Huckabee
When addressing the United Nations' attempts to disarm law-abiding Americans, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said, "International law doesn't have an application in the appellate process or the adjudication process in an American court." And he later commented that, "Frankly, if the United Nations continues to come at us with such outrageous things, then we should not be too disappointed if the whole thing were to break off and float away in the East River, never to be seen or heard from again."
Huckabee boasted that he was the first sitting governor of Arkansas to receive a permit to carry a concealed handgun and criticized some other candidates by declaring, "I didn't just join the NRA last year."
On the Second Amendment, Huckabee expounded, "I sometimes marvel that there are people in our country who will proliferously defend the importance, the primacy and the value of the First Amendment-our freedoms to speak, to assemble, to worship, the freedom of the press-and somehow act as if the Second Amendment is of lesser importance to our freedom than the first." He also said, "We have a constitutional right granted to us, in the wisdom of our forefathers, to protect our families, to protect them from criminals, to protect them from whatever might harm them. And it is as much of a constitutional right as it is the right to speak out against our government ... . And let me be very clear: I do not believe the Second Amendment has any geographical boundaries. It does not apply differently on the East Coast than it does in the South."
Rep. Duncan Hunter
Campaign-trail commitments prevented California Rep. Duncan Hunter from attending the event, but he told the NRA members via videotape that if they believe that keeping and bearing arms is an important part of national security, they should join him in this race for the presidency. "When you elect me, you'll have a real Hunter in the White House." Hunter reaffirmed that Second Amendment guarantees are not just for hunting, but also for self-defense and protecting our communities and country.
Rep. Tom Tancredo
Presidential candidate Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo told the crowd via a videotaped message that he is proud of his A-rating from the NRA, and reminded them that he is a co-sponsor of the legislation to overturn the D.C. gun ban. "I can't wait until that lower court ruling is upheld, because I have a concealed-carry permit, and I'll feel a lot safer, by the way, when I'm able to carry here in Washington, D.C." Tancredo also elaborated on his pro-gun platform with his co-sponsorship of legislation that would make it illegal for the government to take away law-abiding citizens' guns in the time of a crisis, such as in a post-hurricane Katrina situation, and reiterated his support for legislation that would prevent frivolous lawsuits from being filed in an attempt to bankrupt gun manufacturers.
Governor Bill Richardson
Democratic candidate for president Governor Bill Richardson didn't attend the event, but sent a video in which he said, "Thank you for allowing me to take this time to address the NRA Celebration of American Values. Responsible gun ownership, the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns, is indeed, a historically cherished American value and tradition. As a Western governor, I understand and support the Second Amendment. I am grateful to have received the formal endorsement of the NRA as a Congressman, and again as governor in 2006. This position doesn't always make me the most popular guy in the room with certain audiences. But the reality is that New Mexico has an age-old history of hunting, sportsmanship, and other lawful shooting activities ... . I have a long record, both as a congressman and governor, as a defender of the rights of citizens to own guns. You may have heard that I not only supported New Mexico's 'Concealed Carry' law, I have a permit myself."
Rep. John Dingell
Former NRA Board member Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) recalled the days "when firearms ownerships and basic rights were very much under attack." Instrumental in helping to form NRA's Institute for Legislative Action in 1975, Dingell remembered the planning stages of NRA's lobbying arm: "We had to have a combination of citizen action, fundraising, expenditures, lobbying and public relation activities of a kind and character that would, in fact, cause us to do the things that needed to be done, in the way they had to be done, and in a way which was effective. That was ILA."
Dingell also emphasized that NRA members best exemplify the mainstream values of America. "We believe in hunting and fishing and enjoying the outdoors. We're patriots. We serve our country in time of war," he said, "and we protect the great constitutional rights, all of them, including and especially the Second Amendment."
Attorney General John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft took the opportunity to explain why, as Attorney General, he produced a landmark policy paper stating that the Second Amendment protects individual rights to bear arms. "...It was high time in evaluating this right, to make reference to the controlling document-the Constitution-and the intention of those who framed it," he said. Prior to his time as Attorney General, Ashcroft said there were people who wanted to migrate the Constitution away from this concept. "They had gotten a number of people to declare that it really wasn't a right that was inured to individuals at all." A thorough 80-page opinion reflected otherwise, he said. "The most comforting thing about it was that honest scholars on both sides of the issue had to finally conclude-and some of them had to change their opinions to do so-that what was intended, what was embodied in the Constitution, what was enshrined there, was a durable right, and that the right is inured to individuals, not to state institutions and governmental institutions in particular."
Harold Ford, Jr.
Former Democratic Tennessee Representative Harold Ford, Jr. lent his support via a videotaped message and offered his opinion on pending gun legislation. "Right where you are today in our nation's capital, law-abiding residents can't keep a gun to defend themselves in their homes. That's wrong, he said." As a congressman, Ford was a co-sponsor of the D.C. Personal Protection Act. "The Bill of Rights applies to ever one, and the last time I checked, the District of Columbia was a part of that great country. It's out of our hands now and let's hope that the courts side with us."
America Needs You
Former Speaker of the House, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, the final speaker of the day, infused an inspirational speech with constitutional reaffirmations and historical reminders. "We formed the Constitution by loaning power to the government, but the government does not have power over us, except to the degree that we loan it," he said. After impressing upon the audience their right to free speech guaranteed under the First Amendment and declaring the unconstitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Act, Gingrich went on to define the Founding Fathers' intentions of the Second Amendment. "It's not, as some candidates suggest, about deer hunting," he said. "The Right to Keep and Bear Arms is a political right granted at the core of the American system to ensure that the American people have a right of self-protection and that no tyrant can take away their power or can put them in a concentration camp or can kill them without mercy. It is a political right."
Yet this is not merely an American challenge, said Gingrich. "There is a worldwide effort underway by the left to strip innocent, law-abiding citizens of the right to bear arms and to coerce the United States by turning into international law a series of provisions which are a fundamental assault on the core values of the American Constitution and a fundamental assault on the core values of the Founding Fathers," he said, and assigned blame on this assault to billionaire financier George Soros, "who has spent an amazing amount of the money he's earned in free society trying to undermine the very freedoms that allowed him to become wealthy." He went on to say that the United Nations also is today at the center of a struggle to try to strip from us the Right to Keep and Bear Arms by doing it through diplomacy "when they know they could never possibly do it inside the United States in a political system in which every effort to take away our rights has been defeated again and again."
To understand how critical the '08 elections will be, Gingrich left no doubt that gun owners can't rest through this pivotal election. "If the left has its way guns will not be an issue in the next election. They've gotten awfully good at hiding who they really are until just after the election," he said.
In the end, unless anti-gun politicians succeed in cloaking their views behind rhetoric, Americans who cherish their Second Amendment freedoms will defeat them, as polling data confirms. According to an ABC opinion poll 73 percent of Americans believe the Second Amendment is an individual right, and according to a Gallup poll, 146 million eligible voters live in households with one or more firearms.
Yet more compelling, according to a Gallup poll, 33 million Americans perceive themselves to be members of the NRA, yet only about 4 million are actual members. For the sake of our constitutional rights, these gun owners must become NRA members so the NRA can inform them about critical issues and expose their representatives' voting records. The time is now. Urge your family, friends, neighbors and co-workers to visit www.insureyourgunrights.com or www.nrahq.org to join NRA today-your rights depend on it.