By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Rudolph W. Giuliani yesterday sought to persuade members of the National Rifle Association to look past his lengthy record of pushing for tougher gun control by saying that his views on this issue had been changed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The attacks on New York and the Pentagon put "a whole different emphasis on the things America needs to do to protect itself, and maybe even a renewed emphasis on the Second Amendment," Giuliani told the roughly 500 NRA members gathered at a Washington hotel.
Giuliani shared the forum with several rivals for the Republican presidential nomination who have long been outspoken in their support for gun owners' rights. But attention focused on the former New York City mayor, who has emerged as the GOP front-runner despite being out of step with party orthodoxy on issues such as guns, abortion and gay rights.
His tenuous hold on a lead in national polling has been built largely on a get-tough approach to terrorism, but he was met with a skeptical response by the crowd at the annual NRA conference yesterday.
While never expressly repudiating his stance on gun control, he sought repeatedly to assure the audience that he would not seek to place new limits on gun ownership, saying that "law enforcement should focus on enforcing the laws that exist on the books as opposed to passing new extensions of laws."
Giuliani acknowledged that his record put him at odds with the NRA -- whose members he once likened to "extremists" -- but pledged that he would uphold the Second Amendment, which he said clearly supports the right to bear arms. He said his clampdown on guns in New York was needed to reduce crime and was focused only on criminals, and he added that he would carry the same philosophy into the White House.
He urged NRA members to recognize their points in common with him and support him as a candidate who could beat the Democrats next fall.
"You have to figure out who is electable and who can win, because if we make a mistake about that, the discussion will go very much in a direction that you and I disagree with," he said. "I would love to have your support, but mostly, I'd like us to respect each other, because I think we have very, very legitimate and similar views."
Giuliani has made similar "agree to disagree" overtures in this campaign on other issues where he runs counter to the Republican mainstream, but he went a step further yesterday by implying that the fervor of his past advocacy for gun control has dulled in recent years.
At one point, he came close to disavowing a lawsuit against gunmakers that he initiated while mayor of New York.
The 2000 lawsuit sought to hold gunmakers liable for shootings with illegal guns (the case, by chance, was heard this week in a federal appeals court). At the time, Giuliani called it an "aggressive step towards restoring accountability to an industry that profits from the suffering of others."
Yesterday, Giuliani backed away from the lawsuit, saying he might not uphold it if he were a judge.
"That lawsuit has taken several turns and several twists that I don't agree with," he said, without going into specifics. "I also think that there are some major intervening events -- September 11, which cast somewhat of a different light on the Second Amendment, doesn't change it fundamentally but perhaps highlights the necessity of it."
The pitch met with a tepid response. Several audience members said later that Giuliani had done little to allay their worries.
"I've still got something in the back of my mind that's hesitant about where he stands," said Michael Neubauer, from Northern California. "He's not solid enough."
As mayor, Giuliani was an outspoken supporter of a national ban on assault weapons, saying in a 1995 interview that the NRA's "defense of assault weapons, and their unwillingness to deal with some of the realities here that we face in our cities is a terrible, terrible mistake." He also decried porous gun laws in other states that led to a flood of illegal firearms in New York.
"A leopard doesn't change his spots," said Frank Pottle, a machinery repairman from Georgia. "If he's for gun control, whether you do it at the local or national level, it's all the same because you're abrogating my rights."
Meeting with a more enthusiastic response was former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.), who basked in warm applause despite his past support for campaign finance reform, which the NRA opposes. Thompson played up his edge over Giuliani without saying his rival's name, noting that he, Thompson, had visited a gun store and a gun show in recent weeks and that his gun-control beliefs "did not depend on geography."
"I never subscribed to the notion that it made our country safer to infringe on the rights of law-abiding American citizens," he said. "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."
Asked whether stricter gun laws are justified in high-crime areas, Thompson shot back: "Nope. It's more than a coincidence that so many of the places with high crime rates have some of the toughest gun restrictions."
Earlier, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- who has taken heat from the NRA for his support of campaign finance reform -- rallied the crowd with his own veiled attack on Giuliani, criticizing the 2000 lawsuit as a "devious" attempt to bankrupt gunmakers.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee also addressed the convention; former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney spoke via video, as did Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Democratic candidate to address the group.
Giuliani got a nervous laugh from the crowd after an odd interlude halfway through his speech: His cellphone rang, he answered, and he announced that it was his wife, Judith. "I'm talking to members of the NRA," he said into the phone. "I love you."
Giuliani praised the recent decision striking down the District of Columbia's stringent anti-gun laws, citing it as an example of his approach: No matter one's beliefs about guns, the Second Amendment must be respected.
"One thing you can be sure about with me is I will tell you what I really believe. It's not going to change unless something dramatic happens to make it change, and then I'll explain to you why," he said.
This failed to reassure Ron Boetto, from Illinois.
"He sounded like he said he'd back us but only under certain circumstances," Boetto said. "He didn't say, 'I support the Second Amendment, and nothing is going to change my mind from that.' He didn't say that."