ST. LOUIS — Hoping to inspire the conservative base ahead of the general election, Mitt Romney spoke to the National Rifle Association on Friday, seeking the support of a powerful group that has not always warmed up to him.
When he was governor of Massachusetts, his backing of laws that are anathema to the national gun lobby — an assault weapons ban and a waiting period to buy firearms — once engendered skepticism, if not hostility, from some gun owners.
His appearance at the gun lobby's annual gathering also came at a moment when the NRA's grip on gun legislation is under renewed scrutiny because of permissive self-defense laws it has promoted, such as the one in Florida.
Romney alluded to the laws, known as "stand your ground," when he told an audience of thousands here, "We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters and sportsmen and those seeking to protect their homes and their families."
"President Obama has not," he added. "I will."
He breezed past any attempt to expand on or defend his record as governor to touch a more fundamental nerve with the gun lobby: its fear that a second term for Obama would give him another chance to nominate a Supreme Court justice.
"In his first term," Romney said, "we've seen the president try to browbeat the Supreme Court. In a second term, he would remake it. Our freedoms would be in the hands of an Obama court, not just for four years but for the next 40. That must not happen."
Before Romney's speech, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said that was exactly the kind of statement the group was looking for. He said the NRA fears that an altered Supreme Court could reverse a pair of landmark 5-4 decisions that affirmed an individual's right to bear arms and narrowed the ability of states and cities to enact gun-control laws.
But the issue may be something of a red herring, since there is no indication that even the oldest conservative and swing-vote justices have health problems that could result in retirement.
Obama has hardly been an enemy of gun rights. He signed legislation allowing visitors at national parks to carry concealed guns, and his overall record has so disappointed the gun-control lobby that the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave him an F grade in 2010.