BOSTON – To hear Mitt Romney talk on the campaign trail, you might think the Republican presidential candidate had a gun rack in the back of his pickup truck.
"I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I've been a hunter pretty much all my life," he said this week in Keene, N.H., to a man sporting a National Rifle Association cap.
Yet the former Massachusetts governor's hunting experience is limited to two trips at the bookends of his 60 years: as a 15-year-old, when he hunted rabbits with his cousins on a ranch in Idaho, and last year, when he shot quail on a fenced game preserve in Georgia.
Last year's trip was an outing with major donors to the Republican Governors Association, which Romney headed at the time.
An aide said Wednesday that Romney was not trying to mislead anyone, although he confirmed Romney had been hunting only on those occasions in his life.
"Governor Romney's support for the Second Amendment doesn't come from the fact he knows how to handle a firearm; it comes from his appreciation of the Constitution and the rights enshrined in it, including the right to keep and bear arms," said campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.
He went on to cite the pro-gun measures Romney signed into law while serving as governor from 2003 to this past January.
Romney himself made several of the same points to the Keene audience, while also trying to offer some perspective on his hunting experience.
"I support the Second Amendment," he told the man who had asked about his views on the constitutional right to bear arms. "I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I've been a hunter pretty much all my life. I've never really shot anything terribly big. I used to hunt rabbits."
Romney added: "Shooting a rabbit with a single-shot .22 is pretty hard, and after watching me try for a couple of weeks, (my cousins) said, `We'll slip you the semiautomatic. You'll do better with that.' And I sure did."
On the Georgia excursion, he said, "I knocked quite a few birds and enjoyed myself a great deal."
Expressing familiarity with and support for gun rights is key among Republican presidential contenders, who count gun owners, members of the military and the NRA itself among their potential supporters.
It helps explain why Romney joined the NRA last August, signing up not just as a supporter but a designated "Lifetime" member, and why he has softened his gun control positions.
Romney told a Derry, N.H., audience, "I'm after the NRA's endorsement. 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."
During a 1994 U.S. Senate campaign, Romney positioned himself as a moderate outsider, warning special interest groups to stay out of the race and saying he supported the Brady gun control law and a ban on assault rifles.
"That's not going to make me the hero of the NRA," he told the Boston Herald at the time. "I don't line up with a lot of special interest groups."
It's a theme he carried into his 2002 gubernatorial campaign. At the time, Romney pledged to do nothing to change the state's firearms statutes.
"We do have tough gun laws in Massachusetts. I support them. I won't chip away at them. I believe they protect us and provide for our safety," he said.
True to his word, Romney went on to sign one of the toughest assault weapons laws in the country.
Romney, though, also took steps to protect the rights of gun owners as governor.
The assault weapons ban won the backing of Massachusetts gun owners in part because it included provisions extending the term of a firearms identification card and a license to carry weapons from four to six years. It also created a Firearm License Review Board to provide an appeals process for people whose license applications had been denied.
In 2006, Romney also signed NRA-backed legislation creating exemptions for the makers of customized target pistols who had found it too expensive to sell their guns in Massachusetts because of a state regulation requiring them to test at least five examples of new products "until destruction."
In February, Romney was touting such measures as he and his wife, Ann, toured the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Orlando, Fla., with Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president.
"I'm proud to be among the many decent, law-abiding men and women who safely use firearms," Romney said.