National Rifle Association Celebration of American Values

Thanks Chris [Cox, Executive Director, NRA Institute for Legislative Action], and thank you very much for honoring me with this award. It’s quite flattering to be singled out like this given all the impressive speakers you’ve lined up. If you’re trying to get me to cover dinner, it’s not gonna work.

Welcome to Kentucky. We’re glad you’re here. We hope you enjoy your stay. And we hope you spend your stimulus checks before you leave.

Let me start with an admission. I happen to believe that more guns in lawful hands means less crime, and the statistics, of course, bear that out. This may come as a surprise to people who’ve been fed bad information, just as it might surprise some people to learn that shooting is one of the safest sports. But let people say what they will. I’m sleeping well tonight knowing the NRA’s in town.

America is transfixed at the moment by the presidential race. It’s been exciting to say the least. Most of the pundits agree that Senator Obama has the Democratic nomination wrapped up, and, of course, my friend John McCain’s had the Republican nomination wrapped up for awhile.

A lot of people are wondering what Senator Clinton’s up to, why she hasn’t dropped out. Is she running for Vice President? No chance. Based on her comments in Pennsylvania a couple weeks back, I don’t think she’ll be satisfied until you give her Wayne [LaPierre’s] job.

It would not be the first time a Senator was head of the NRA. The NRA was actually founded in Senator Clinton’s adopted state of New York, and its first president was a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. But it was founded by two Civil War veterans. They were worried about the lack of marksmanship among Union soldiers and wanted to do something about it. And in the 137 years that have passed since its founding, the National Rifle Association has proven to be one of the finest voluntary organizations, in war and in peace, that any free nation has ever known.

Early on, the NRA fulfilled its original mission by training young men to shoot. In the early 20th Century, its youth programs reached hundreds of thousands, promoting sport, educating the public, and providing an early training ground for some of the best fighting forces in history.

In times of war, the NRA offered its ranges to the government, developed training materials, helped guard munitions plants — and, in one case, even helped one of our allies: just prior to U.S. involvement in World War II, NRA members sent thousands of firearms to England so the British could defend themselves against a potential German invasion.

It’s one of the great ironies of American history that a century and a half after the American Revolution, American citizens would voluntarily hand over their own arms to the heirs of King George and the Redcoats because the English had left themselves defenseless as a result of gun control laws. In the best traditions of our country, the NRA was there to help.

Over the years, the NRA’s role has expanded beyond its original mission. You’ve taken on a larger role, from promoting the exercise of a freedom to leading the charge in its defense.

The Founders had a lively fear that with the passage of time the Constitution they labored to create would be distorted by the enemies of freedom or the ambitions of the powerful. And, of course, we now know they were prophetic.

Look no further than the courts. It’s a sad fact that in some quarters today people think that part of the job description of non-elected judges is to invent new meaning in the words of the Constitution.

Thankfully, the NRA has responded aggressively against this dangerous trend. One of your members, speaking about persistent attacks on Second Amendment in particular, explained your position this way:

“The Founders’ intent in framing the Second Amendment is perfectly clear. Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.’ … To keep and bear arms is a right for all law-abiding citizens.”

That NRA member, of course, was Charlton Heston, whose passing we still mourn. Charlton Heston was an American original. He was a patriot, and he was a powerful and persuasive advocate for freedom. He was also a deeply compassionate man with a keen sense of right and wrong and an even keener intelligence. And it was disgraceful that this good man would have to suffer the indignity of being mocked, toward the end of his life, by the likes of Michael Moore.

We pay tribute at this convention to the life and legacy of Charlton Heston. The power of that legacy is evident not only in the size of this crowd, but by the undeniable influence of the NRA.

Americans have always tended to be a fairly conservative bunch. The Colonists overthrew the English not because they wanted to create some radically new political order, but because they liked the country they had put together here and wanted to preserve a way of life they had come to enjoy. The Constitution wasn’t meant to impose an abstract notion of government on the people. It was meant to protect the people, and their customs, from the power of the state, for all times.

This is made clear, above all, in the words of the Constitution itself. Those words speak of a limited government with enumerated powers, which means the only powers the government has are the ones the Constitution lists. The rest are reserved for the people or for the states.

The Constitution also sets the various branches of government in opposition to each other, which is meant to increase the power of the individual and limit the power of the state. On top of all this, there’s the Bill of Rights, which lists those basic freedoms no government can proscribe.

Among these basic rights is the right to bear arms. The Founders felt so strongly about the right to bear arms that they put it right near the top of the list. And in doing so, they meant to send a message to the world: America, for all times, would be a nation of the self-governed.

Those who attack the Second Amendment, or who try to undermine it through the courts or the legislative branch, seem to have a different view. Their opposition to it suggests that, unlike the Founders, they have a greater fear of their fellow citizens than they do of the state.

It’s a telling difference, but it’s one that we’ve seen it over and over again throughout history. On the one side are people like Howard Dean and Barack Obama, those who seem to think the people need the state more than the state needs the people. They are the heirs of a centuries-old line of thinkers who think that the few, the elite, should diagnose and cure the ills of the many.

Those who follow in this tradition have a right to their own opinions, but not to their own version of the Constitution. Yet they persist in advancing a reading of the Constitution that the men who signed it would never have understood. In this debate, most Americans are on the side of the Founders. Which is why liberals in Washington often keep their real opinions to themselves.

Occasionally those opinions slip out, at cocktail parties in San Francisco and New York. Reporters usually refer to these slips as gaffes or blunders. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but it seems to me a better word for it would be honesty. Someone who says that Americans cling to guns and religion because they’re bitter doesn’t say it because he misspoke. He says it because that’s what he really thinks. And here’s what I think: he’s dead wrong.

When I hear that most of the families in this country say grace before meals, I think it’s a tribute to America’s greatness, not a sign of its weakness. And when I hear that about nine out of ten NRA members show up to the polls on Election Day, I don’t think it means that gun owners are bitter. I think it shows that the spirit of freedom is alive among the millions of members of the NRA.

The defense of freedom has never been easy. But the NRA is always up to the challenge. You all know that the District of Columbia has a ban on the possession of handguns by law-abiding citizens, even for purposes of self-defense in their own homes. Well, when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban violated the U.S. Constitution, the NRA rallied its supporters.

Now, when the Supreme Court weighs the lower court’s decision sometime this summer, the justices will have to contend with a brief against the ban that boasts a remarkable distinction. No other Supreme Court brief in U.S. history has drawn the signatures of more members of Congress.

We’re sending a message to the Supreme Court: the Second Amendment means what it says.

I don’t mind mentioning that Senator Obama and Senator Clinton both declined to sign the brief. Or that my friend, Senator McCain, signed it. It’s also worth noting that Senator Clinton and Senator Obama didn’t sign the opposing brief either, even though both of them have long histories of sympathy for gun control legislation.

This was no oversight. Liberals have learned the hard way in recent years that gun control laws aren’t as popular in places like Bowling Green as they are in San Francisco.

The Democrats started to grow silent on gun control after the Clinton Gun Ban of 1994, when the House voted to repeal the law just two years after its enactment. We saw it in 2000, when Al Gore dialed back his gun control rhetoric somewhere between the primaries and the general election. We saw it when gun control advocates failed to extend the Clinton Gun Ban. And we see it now, with the absence of irresponsible gun control legislation during an election year.

But don’t be fooled. When you can’t find liberals pushing something in Congress, you can usually find them in the courts. Two years ago, unable to directly limit the use of guns by law-abiding citizens, they turned to their trial lawyers buddies instead. And gun manufacturers were forced to spend tens of millions of dollars defending themselves against frivolous lawsuits that were meant to put them out of business.

Republicans responded by passing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. I was proud to cosponsor the bill. I fought hard for its passage. And I’ll give you one guess as to how Senator Clinton and Senator Obama voted on it.

The courts continue to be an important front, as the Heller case makes clear. I voted to put John Roberts and Sam Alito on the Supreme Court because I thought they’d have a deep respect for the words of the Constitution and for what the Framers intended, including a faithful interpretation of the Second Amendment. Senator Clinton and Senator Obama voted against both of them.

And Senator Obama went even further. You might recall that as the vote on Judge Alito was approaching, John Kerry tried to phone in a filibuster from the ski slopes in Switzerland. Senator Obama, along with a handful of other far-left liberals, opted to join him.

It should be no secret what kind of judges Senator Obama would like to nominate if he were president. And I can guarantee you this: None of them would ever be asked to keynote an NRA convention.

The fight also continues in the House and Senate. Fortunately, the Founders tried to make sure bad ideas don’t get very far in Congress. I like to point out that the Senate is the only legislative body on earth where a majority isn’t enough. This means that as long as Republicans hold onto a substantial minority, we’re not going to let any of the really bad ideas become law.

The Senate is a unique institution. But it’s just one example of the many differences that exist between America and so many other countries.

For those who look at France with envy, these differences are a bad thing. For those who think America’s differences make us better off, not worse, this is a good thing. And the right to bear arms is one of the good things that sets America apart.

Another thing that distinguishes America is the kind of heroes we embrace — men like George Washington, who only became president because the other Founders were afraid the U.S. wouldn’t survive its early years unless Washington agreed to lead it. He would have rather stayed at home.

Americans celebrate pioneers and risk-takers, not lords and dukes. We celebrate the men and women who have stood up over the years to defend our freedoms. The soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes. The farmers who traded in their ploughs for muskets, as Washington did, are heroes. Charlton Heston will be an American hero to future generations; Michael Moore will not.

Washington established for all time the type of hero Americans embrace. But he didn’t create the type. It was the pioneers, even before the Constitution was written, who created the type, and whose very lives were an early illustration of the freedoms the Constitution would later enshrine.

One of these men was Daniel Boone. If Boone had carried a business card, it would have said he was a hunter. After spending some time exploring the area around us, Boone wrote in his journal that when he got back home he was determined to bring his family back as soon as possible, “to live in Kentucky, which I esteemed a second paradise, at the risk of my life and fortune.”

Boone’s determination to bring his family back to this place serves as a metaphor for every American who treasures this wide land and the freedoms we enjoy. In reflective moments, most Americans think of our nation as a kind of second paradise, one that they too would be willing to defend at the risk of life and fortune. Many before us have done just that. Many are doing so today. And as long as organizations like the NRA continue to flourish in America, the spirit of freedom will remain strong, and future generations will do the same.