WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson told a group of National Rifle Association members on Friday he was a proud owner of a concealed-carry permit.
Seven declared presidential candidates plus one waiting in the wings were going to talk guns, recreation and Second Amendment rights Friday before a power-house conservative audience gathered at the NRA's "Celebration of American Values" conference being held in Washington.
Richardson, the New Mexico governor and the only Democrat on the roster, sent in a video-taped message noting the apparent conflict of his party affiliation with his support for the National Rifle Association.
"As a western governor, I understand and support the Second Amendment," Richardson said, noting he has previously received an NRA endorsement when running for Congress and the governor's office.
"This position doesn't always make me the most popular guy in the room with certain audiences, but the reality is that New Mexico has an age-old history of hunting, sportsmanship and other lawful shooting activities," Richardson said, adding that not only did he support his state's concealed-carry permit law, but, "I have a permit myself."
But the politicians who were speaking Friday were largely Republicans. Most of the Republican field was scheduled for either live speeches or taped addresses — including Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who said this week he will run if his supporters raise $30 million, also was scheduled to speak at the conference later Friday.
Giuliani, who is banking a large part of his campaign on public safety as well as defense of the Second Amendment, told the audience that he would protect the right to bear arms in the way he did as a former federal prosecutor in the Reagan administration and as mayor of New York.
"I'll work to make sure that if somebody commits a crime, they go to prison. If somebody commits a crime with a gun, they'll go to prison for even more time and for mandatory sentences. No plea bargains, no exceptions; you go to jail. That's the way to reduce crime," Giuliani said. "We need to have zero tolerance for crime committed with a gun. After all, it's people that commit crimes, not guns."
Giuliani also said he would appoint "strict constructionist" federal judges who would interpret the law as it's written rather than imposing liberal ideals in their rulings, and applauded the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that overturned a D.C. law banning most firearms in the home.
"When we appoint a strict constructionist judge, that's what we're appointing. We're appointing someone to interpret what somebody else meant, not to make it up as he or she goes along," Giuliani said.
Thompson, who is facing criticism for campaigning at gun shows, made no bones about his support for the Second Amendment.
"My first trip to New Hampshire after I announced my candidacy, I went to a gun store. When I was in Florida, just last week, I went to a gun show, right before the U.T.-Florida football game. I should have stayed at the gun show," Thompson said to laughter from the audience.
He later faced a question asking him his feelings on gun shows. Saying he had just returned from one, he said, "I enjoy gun shows" and would resist efforts to regulate them.
"I think that they're a part of Americana. I do not know that anybody would be against gun shows. There are various kinds of regulations and proposals that would restrict private citizens who are not professional dealers or anything like that, and place rules on them as they go there. I've always been against that," Thompson said.
McCain, who at times has crossed swords with the NRA, sought to strike a conciliatory tone by pushing his support for constructionist judges, opposition to unfair gun regulations, and cleaning up Washington in general.
"Over the years, we have not agreed on every issue. We had differences over my efforts to standardize the sales procedures at gun shows and to clean up our campaign finance system. I understand and respect your position," McCain said.
"But while we may disagree on the means, we do agree on the need to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and, in light of the number of my colleagues who have been disgraced, are under investigation and are worried about indictment, agree that Washington needs cleaning up. Americans have lost trust in their government and that trust must be restored," he said.
McCain also took aim at Giuliani, describing the former mayor's "devious attempt to bankrupt gun manufacturers" with a lawsuit against them over violent crimes involving guns. A federal court heard arguments on the ongoing lawsuit Friday in New York.
The Arizona senator also mentioned Giuliani's use of the word "extremists" in talking about the NRA.
"My friends, gun owners are not extremists; you are the core of modern America," McCain said. "The Second Amendment is unique in the world and at the core of our constitutional freedoms. It guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms. To argue anything else is to reject the clear meaning of our founding fathers.
McCain also took a shot at an increasingly popular Republican political target, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org. The group, "which seems to be calling the shots in the Democratic Party these days, will have more influence on gun control in the Oval Office, not John Dingell," McCain said, referring to the key Michigan Democratic congressman who supports gun rights.
Huckabee and Gingrich were scheduled to deliver remarks later Friday, and Romney was to give a taped message.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.