The man with the NRA hat presented a unique challenge to Mitt Romney. It was April 2007, at a campaign event in Keene, N.H., and Romney, who two months earlier had announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, was being asked about his stance on guns by a gentleman who, based on his baseball cap, was quite passionate about this particular issue.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney had been able to tack a mostly pro-gun-control course. Not entirely—the NRA had still given him a "B" during his gubernatorial run in 2002, and he did support a few modest NRA-approved initiatives. But overall, Massachusetts voters were rather predictable on guns, and in 2004 Romney signed what the AP would later call “one of the toughest assault weapons laws in the country.” The Bay State had long had sturdy gun-control laws, and its residents liked them.
But in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire, in the early days of his presidential campaign, Romney was facing his electoral future. If he really wanted to be a viable presidential candidate—let alone a viable presidential candidate for a party blissfully wed to unfettered gun rights—he needed to start singing a different tune. The guy in the NRA cap was just one man, but there were millions more gun owners in Romney’s immediate future, in Iowa and Ohio and Florida and everywhere else. For a candidate whose opponents on the right were hell-bent on hanging the RINO label on him, it was a problem.
And now the guy in the NRA hat was asking Romney about his stance on gun control.
So Romney responded with reassurance. “I've been a hunter pretty much all my life,” he said. This wasn’t true.
With the national debate over gun control back in the news in the wake of the Aurora massacre, Romney’s ideological trajectory on the issue is receiving greater scrutiny.
Of course, President Obama’s views on gun control have “evolved” too. But more so than perhaps any of the many issues on which Romney’s views have changed, Mitt’s position on gun control reveals him at his Mitt-iest—pandering, carefully calibrating, and, in two cases at least, outright lying.
For example, the hunting claim. As his campaign quickly acknowledged, Romney had not been a lifetime hunter. In fact, he had hunted just twice: during a rabbit-hunting trip in Idaho when he was 15, and at a Georgia quail hunt organized during the Republican Governors Association in 2006. (Romney further stated that he had hunted “varmints” on multiple occasions.)
Then, in January 2007, on a conservative podcast called “The Glenn and Helen Show,” Romney said, “I have a gun of my own. I go hunting myself. I'm a member of the NRA and believe firmly in the right to bear arms.”
“I’m after the NRA’s endorsement,” Romney told an audience in Derry, N.H. “I’m not sure they’ll give it to me. I hope they will.”
But Romney did not have a gun, as he acknowledged to inquiring reporters two days later. He was, technically, a member of the NRA—he had joined six months prior, paying for a lifetime membership. He admitted it was a calculated move. “I’m after the NRA’s endorsement,” he told an audience in Derry, N.H. “I’m not sure they’ll give it to me. I hope they will. I also joined because if I’m going to ask for their endorsement, they’re going to ask for mine.”
As he has on abortion, health-care reform, and a host of other issues, Romney has constantly calibrated his views on guns and gun control to reflect not an internally coherent ideology, but rather what a given questioner wants to hear at a given point. It’s the only way to explain the very casual, easily disproved moments of dishonesty. After all, you don’t just “forget” that you’re not a lifelong hunter, or that you don’t own a gun.
But perhaps the most honest appraisal of Romney’s position on guns comes from the man himself. In the summer of 1994, Romney was running for Senate against both the incumbent Ted Kennedy and an underdog challenger from the right, John Lakian. Lakian’s campaign sent out a bruising letter to tens of thousands of gun owners in Massachusetts, blasting both of his opponents for their pro-gun-control tendencies.
Romney’s response was short and unequivocal.
“He is apparently trying to appeal to small groups because his message is not selling to the overall Republican voting groups,” Romney said.