St. Louis – As he seeks 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.
As governor of Massachusetts, he backed laws that are anathema to the national gun lobby — an assault weapons ban and a waiting period to buy firearms — and once engendered skepticism, if not outright hostility, from some gun owners.
His appearance at the gun lobby’s annual gathering also came at a moment when its powerful grip on gun legislation is under renewed scrutiny because of permissive self-defense laws it has promoted, like the one in Florida that may complicate the prosecution of George Zimmerman, who killed an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, six weeks ago.
Mr. 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 owners’ lobby: its fear that a second term for Mr. Obama would give him another chance to nominate a Supreme Court justice.
“In his first term,” Mr. 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 his speech, an N.R.A. spokesman said that was exactly the kind of statement the group was looking for.
The spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam, said the N.R.A. feared that an altered Supreme Court could reverse a pair of landmark 5-to-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 are suffering health problems that could result in retirement.
Mr. Obama has hardly been an enemy of gun rights. He signed legislation allowing visitors to 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.
Another goal for Mr. Romney here was to close a bit of the cultural gap with gun owners. He was lampooned during his 2008 presidential campaign for exaggerating his hunting experience, explaining that he was a hunter of “small varmints,” rabbits and rodents.
This year, he revealed in a debate that he had been on a hunting trip to Montana for elk.
His guide on that outing, Rob Keck, is a well-known figure in hunting, and it was no coincidence that he accompanied Mr. Romney to the N.R.A. convention, where hunting and firearms exhibitions filled a large hall.
Mr. Keck described in an interview taking Mr. Romney into rugged country in November 2010 for two days of hunting elk and one for shooting pheasants on a private ranch. “He admittedly didn’t grow up hunting,” Mr. Keck said, “but let me tell you, he accounted for a number of birds on that day.”
It remains to be seen whether Second Amendment advocates will enthusiastically come out for Mr. Romney in November.
David Ross, a longtime N.R.A. member from Reading, Pa., who has been a grass-roots organizer for conservative candidates in his battleground state, was skeptical.
“I think that’s going to be heavy lifting,” said Mr. Ross, who was attending the convention with his son, Clinton, an Army reservist. “He was for an assault weapons ban when he was Massachusetts governor. What changed? And how do we know he’s not going to change back? This is the chameleonlike thinking that is my biggest fear.”
Although Mr. Romney said in 2007 that he didn’t “line up with” the N.R.A. on an assault weapons ban, more recently he indicated that the national ban, which expired, did not need renewal.
He has also backed away from his support, while governor, for a Brady bill requiring a five-day waiting period to buy a firearm. He has said in recent years that a waiting period is no longer needed because the Internet allows for instant background checks.
Rick Santorum, who withdrew from the Republican primary race this week, also addressed the gun rights group, and he seemed to edge toward an endorsement of Mr. Romney. “I will be all-in between now and November,” he said. “I will do everything I can to elect conservatives up and down the ticket.”
Mr. Romney, who was introduced by his wife, Ann, received a standing ovation after his speech, though in the cavernous downtown dome where audience members filled only the floor, not the stands, the sound was subdued.
Tom Hanna, 75, a 40-year member of the gun group, said he had some concerns about Mr. Romney’s politics. But any of that doubt was gone after Mr. Romney spoke.
“He showed a commitment to the Constitution that I had not seen in television blurbs from his campaign,” he said, adding, “I’m willing to take him at face value for what he said.”