An array of Republican leaders, including several possible presidential contenders, addressed tens of thousands of gun enthusiasts at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual meeting in Indianapolis on Friday. But the event often felt more like an outlet for general conservative grievances than a gun-specific rally.
“The IRS is now a weapon – a weapon to punish anyone who disagrees with them, and that means every one of you,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in his opening speech. “They try to regulate our religion. They collect our cell phone and email data. They give us Solyndra, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Obamacare, massive unemployment, a debt that will choke our grandchildren and one executive order on top of another.”
Speakers thought to be eyeing a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination included Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also sent recorded video messages that played between speeches.
There was only one Democrat on the schedule, Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. of Milwaukee County, which reflects the NRA’s gradual move from a plausibly bipartisan interest group towards a primarily GOP institution. None of the scheduled speakers Friday were women, although Sarah Palin is set to address a rally on Saturday.
Republican politicians took the opportunity to promote their records in Washington or their home states – and perhaps test out some lines for a 2016 stump speech.
“Take comfort, because in just 32 months we will have a new president,” Rubio said. “Our current president should take comfort, because in 32 months he can return home to live in the anti-gun utopia that is Chicago.”
Chicago has been struggling for years to contain gang-related shootings. Conservatives often point to the violence there as evidence that gun safety laws don’t work.
Jindal railed against “President Obama’s wealthiest backers in Hollywood” and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose recent pledge to donate $50 million to gun control causes made him a frequent target in speeches.
“They’ve got private chefs, but they want to censor your grocery lists. They get to see the plastic surgeons of their choice, they want government to pick your cardiologist,” Jindal said.
In a video, Walker asked attendees to help with his re-election campaign this year, so he could “take on the Obama political machine.”
The meeting comes during a broadly successful period for the gun rights movement.
In the wake of a series of mass shootings, including the December 2012 massacre of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Obama and Democrats embarked on a campaign to expand background checks, reinstate a ban on assault weapons, and limit the size of ammunition magazines. Republicans, backed up by the NRA, not only repelled the effort in Congress – they managed to pass more expansive gun rights laws in states around the country.
“Last year, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the Democrats were going to pass gun control,” Cruz said in his video address. “President Obama held press conference after press conference promoting his legislative package to deprive law abiding citizens of their constitutional rights, but you proved them wrong.”
While Democratic governors in Colorado and New York passed new restrictions on guns, significantly more states have gone the opposite route. One year after Sandy Hook, a New York Times report found that legislatures had passed 70 laws loosening gun restrictions versus just 39 tightening them in the same period. In another victory, conservative activists in Colorado successfully recalled two Democratic legislators who backed the state’s gun control laws.
Just this week, Republican governor Nathan Deal of Georgia signed a law allowing gun owners to carry firearms in places like churches and schools. This year the NRA is setting its sights back on Congress, pushing for a federal law that would force states to recognize concealed carry permits issued by other state and local governments.