LOUISVILLE, KY. — Sen. John McCain, working to mend a frayed relationship with some of the Republican Party's most dedicated foot soldiers, went to the National Rifle Assn.'s annual conference here Friday to assure wary members he is a friend of the 2nd Amendment.
The Arizona senator and presumptive GOP presidential nominee may still have some work to do.
McCain, who asked to speak to the group despite past battles with the organization over restrictions on gun shows, drew a warm reception for his attacks on Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"They claim to support hunters and gun owners," McCain said. "But just because they don't talk about gun control doesn't mean they won't support gun control. Let's be clear. If either Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama is elected president, the rights of law-abiding gun owners will be at risk."
But even the encomiums of McCain's former GOP presidential rivals and other Republican elected officials could not dispel the suspicions of many gun enthusiasts.
"He's the lesser evil," said one young self-described "gunnie" from the Memphis area who blogs at squeakywheelseeksgrease.com. "But I'm still looking for the right candidate. . . . I'm not thrilled at all with John McCain." Many bloggers who write about gun issues use pseudonyms because of the controversial nature of the debate.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a conservative strategist who sits on the NRA board, predicted the organization would probably not endorse McCain, though he said most members would almost certainly vote Republican.
Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said many of his members would probably reject both McCain and Obama in November. "They may not have a big enough barf bag to vote for president," he said.
Many gun rights advocates are still enraged that McCain supports efforts to close the so-called gun show loophole, which allows people who buy guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows to avoid criminal background checks required during gun sales from licensed dealers. In 2000, when Oregon and Colorado voters were considering ballot measures on the issue, McCain appeared in a television ad, saying the loophole allowed felons to buy guns later used in crimes.
In his quest for the presidency, McCain has worked to mend fences with gun rights groups. He joined more than 300 lawmakers who signed a brief supporting a challenge to Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban, which the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on.
And Friday, McCain delivered a full-throated defense of the right to bear arms.
"For more than two decades, I've opposed efforts to ban guns, ban ammunition, ban magazines and dismiss gun owners as some kind of fringe group unwelcome in modern America," he said. "The 2nd Amendment isn't some archaic custom that matters only to rural Americans, who find solace in firearms out of frustration with their economic circumstances." To the delight of the crowd, McCain repeatedly attacked Obama for his comment that embittered Americans "cling" to guns. "Sen. Obama hopes he can get away with having it both ways," McCain said, mocking the Illinois senator for saying he favors gun rights but refusing to back efforts to overturn the Washington gun ban.
Campaigning in South Dakota on Friday, Obama told reporters there was no contradiction in his position on gun rights. "I think people have the right to lawfully bear arms," he said. "I do believe that there is nothing inconsistent with also saying that we can institute some common-sense gun laws so that we don't have kids being shot on the streets of cities like Chicago."
Obama, who has expressed far more support for limits on the sale and distribution of guns than McCain, will almost certainly face the greater challenge this fall if gun control becomes a major political issue.
But the issue could be complicated for McCain as well. "He needs to be in the audience listening instead of being at the podium speaking," one poster on saysuncle.com, a popular gun rights blog, said last week. "Maybe Cheney will take him hunting."