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Giuliani faces tough crowd at NRA conference

Rudy Giuliani told the National Rifle Association much of what they wanted to hear Friday about his support for second amendment rights, but left the conference with few converts. NBC's Matthew E. Berger reports.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivers remarks to the National Rifle Association on Friday.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivers remarks to the National Rifle Association on Friday.Gerald Herbert / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

Rudy Giuliani told the National Rifle Association much of what they wanted to hear Friday about his support for Second Amendment rights, but left the conference with few converts.

“I think he is sincere; I just don’t know if he truly believes it down deep inside,” said Thomas Crum, a retired trucking executive from Scottsdale, Ariz. “I have a little difference with him just beginning to realize what his position really is.”

Most members of the gun lobby who attended Friday’s “A Celebration of American Values” conference said they were encouraged by Giuliani’s appearance and what he said about support for gun rights. But most also said they were concerned about his track record supporting gun control as mayor of New York City, and favored other candidates in the Republican presidential primary.

Bob Bell, a salesman from Clarkesville, Md., said he respected Giuliani’s leadership during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but preferred former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a longtime supporter of second amendment rights. Bell said Giuliani’s mayoral record -- including his advocacy for the assault weapons ban and lawsuits against gun manufacturers -- weighed heavy on him.

“He was a mayor of New York City, and try and get a gun permit up there,” he said.

To garner his support, Bell said, Giuliani would have needed to espouse the right to carry weapons and make a retraction for his earlier views.

Instead, Giuliani acknowledged disagreements with much of the crowd but stressed “there are a lot of things you and I have in common.” His 20-minute speech focused largely on enforcing current gun laws and prosecuting crimes committed with a gun, rather than new gun ownership restrictions.

“The bottom line is we need to step up enforcement of gun crimes and leave law-abiding citizens alone,” Giuliani said to tepid applause.

The Republican candidate, who is among the frontrunners at this point in the 2008 race, did try to explain why, as mayor, he joined a lawsuit by several cities against the gun industry, arguing that manufacturers and distributors made it too easy for criminals to get guns.

On Friday, he said the ongoing lawsuit "has taken several turns and several twists I don't agree with."

Giuliani also said he agrees with a recent federal court ruling that overturned a 30-year-old ban on private ownership of handguns in Washington, D.C. He added that he would appoint judges who take a similarly strict view of the Constitution and the Second Amendment.

Check marks
Sitting next to Bell at lunch Friday, Joe Rogers was keeping a scorecard for each of the presidential candidates on the conference’s brochure. While some speakers had check marks, Giuliani was the only one with a zero next to his name. The Wilmington, N.C. salesman said even Democratic presidential candidate and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson scored better during his taped remarks.

“I don’t think there’s anything he could have said and been truthful about to win over the crowd,” Rogers said of Giuliani. “To his credit, he spoke the truth.”

Friday’s speech to the NRA was considered an important bell-weather for how the Republican front-runner would perform among some of the party’s niche groups that have opposed positions Giuliani has taken in the past. He is likely to face other potentially hostile crowds if and when he reaches out to pro-life voters and opponents of same sex marriage.

While the NRA has never endorsed in a Republican presidential primary, officials at the lobby have left that door open this year, and are planning more forums in early primary states.

NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre said he liked what he heard from Giuliani.

“He said a lot of things that if you’re a law-abiding American firearm owner, you’re nodding and you’re saying ‘I agree with that,’” he said.

A change of heart?
Judy McQuitty, a bookkeeper from Virginia Beach, Va., said she felt Giuliani was one of the least effective speakers at the conference, which also featured Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on video.

“He spent more time campaigning than the others,” McQuitty said of Giuliani. “I think all of them said the proper things to get the backing of the crowd. They all know where this crowd stands.”

But others said they believed Giuliani has had a change of heart on gun control.

“Things change, politicians have to change,” said Vance Perry of Richmond, Va. “Politicians who don’t change can’t grow with the situation. 9/11 changed a lot of things, obviously it changed Rudy Giuliani.”

Supporters at the Capitol Hilton event said they were not casting their primary ballot solely on gun control issues, but said any candidate seeking their vote needed to say the right things about the right to bear arms to even be considered by them. Several attendees said they believed Giuliani had recently passed that litmus test, while others remained unconvinced.

“It’s a defining issue, not because it’s the only issue or the most important issue,” said Alan Riley, a lawyer from Romney, W. Va. “But I find supporters of the second amendment don’t differ with me on many other issues.”

But even Rogers said that despite Giuliani’s zero on his scorecard, he would support him if he garnered the Republican nomination.

“I don’t stay home,” Rogers said. “If he’s the nominee, I support him. But I don’t say that with any enthusiasm.”