When Michael Bloomberg launched his first organization for gun control—Mayors Against Illegal Guns—his goal was to leverage wide public support for universal background checks into actual policy.
He failed. Not only did Mayors Against Illegal Guns fail to save universal background checks from Republican opposition in the Senate, but it alienated ostensible allies, running ads against vulnerable Democrats like Sens. Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Kay Hagan in North Carolina, as if they were the main obstacle to passing gun-control legislation.
What’s more, the creation of the Bloomberg-led organization was fortuitous for the National Rifle Association, which needed a bogeyman for its members as it worked to block Congress and other gun-control advocates. “[President Obama’s] rich, gun-hating friends in Hollywood, along with anti-gun billionaire Michael Bloomberg, will shower him with the money he needs to strip you of your gun rights,” wrote NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox in an email blast to members asking for cash.
After a year of fear-mongering—with Bloomberg as an effective foil—the NRA smashed its fundraising records. By September, the pro-gun group had raised $51 million, $1 million more than its total in 2012. Indeed, the anti-Bloomberg strategy is so effective that the NRA has recycled it for this year’s elections. In a column for the Daily Caller, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre warned that—if Democrats prevailed—gun rights were at risk. “This year’s elections,” he wrote, “will decide whether we stop the Barack Obama-Joe Biden-Michael Bloomberg gun-ban machine and save the right to keep and bear arms—or lose much of our Second Amendment freedoms for generations to come.”
With that said, the collapse of Mayors Against Illegal Guns hasn’t stopped Bloomberg from re-entering the fray with another commitment to pushing gun control. As the New York Times reports, the former New York mayor has pledged $50 million to a new campaign for gun restrictions. This time, however, he plans to take the NRA on its own turf and challenge its grassroots dominance. For Bloomberg, the NRA’s core advantage is its ability to make a credible threat:
“They say, ‘We don’t care. We’re going to go after you,’ ” he said of the N.R.A. “ ‘If you don’t vote with us we’re going to go after your kids and your grandkids and your great-grandkids. And we’re never going to stop.’ ”
Bloomberg’s plan is to focus on the field operations that identify friendly supporters and drive them to the polls. To that end, his new umbrella organization—Everytown for Gun Safety—will focus more on infrastructure, with less time (and money) spent on television ads and media buys.
What’s interesting, given the degree to which he’s hated by the right, is his willingness to stand as the face of this organization. In fact, he doesn’t see his name or his image as a vulnerability, period.
“I don’t know what your perception is of our reputation, and mine, the name Bloomberg around the country,” Bloomberg told the New York Times. He continued, explaining that, wherever he goes, people tell him, “You’re a rock star. People yelling out of cabs, ‘Hey, way to go!’ ”
I can’t say if this is true (my hunch is that Bloomberg is delusional), but I do know that the former mayor is hated among right-wing conservatives for his policies in New York. Conservatives were, and are, huge critics of his bans on smoking, trans fat, and large soft drinks. When I was in Virginia last year to watch Sen. Rand Paul campaign with former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Kentucky senator began his remarks with a 7-Eleven Big Gulp and a swipe at Bloomberg. “I heard Mike Bloomberg wanted to buy the governor’s office down here,” Paul said, “and I figured after he took my Big Gulp, he’d come after my guns.”
Paul said this in Virginia, during a race that had nothing to do with the mayor or his supporters.
Put simply, Bloomberg is sabotaging himself by stepping up as the public face of this effort. Otherwise receptive Americans may recoil at supporting a figure who represents the nanny-state authoritarianism of wealthy New York City elites.
Of course, money is money, and a $50 million investment to combat the NRA could prove effective, even with Bloomberg’s image. But there are problems there, as well. The NRA’s power is as much a function of passion as it is resources. As the Times reports, the organization spends just $20 million annually on political activities. Its influence comes from its members, who are hypervigilant against any effort to curb gun rights. The enthusiasm gap between gun activists and gun-control advocates is huge. According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of those who favor gun rights have either contributed money to a pro-gun organization, contacted a public official to express an opinion on gun policy, expressed opinions on guns on social media, or signed a petition on gun policy. By contrast, only 25 percent of those who prioritize gun control have done the same.
Put another way, gun rights are crucial for those who support them in a way that isn’t true of people who oppose them. Bloomberg’s task is to heighten the political salience of gun control and turn that into action.
It’s a huge task made more difficult by the fact that Bloomberg is leading the charge. Which is to say that if Bloomberg wants this to stand as a success—and not just as a vanity project—then he should give his money, donate his time, and stay behind the scenes.
Not that it would happen, of course. The kind of guy who calls himself a shoo-in for heaven—“I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”—is not the kind of guy who would step away from the spotlight. Even for his favorite cause.