Bloomberg Backlash

Why the New York City mayor’s campaign for gun control isn’t helping.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Is Michael Bloomberg helping or hurting his cause? When the New York mayor’s organization, Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns, launched its $12 million advertising campaign to pressure lawmakers into supporting gun control legislation, the negative reaction from the NRA was predictable, but a week after the launch, the reaction from potential allies has also been cool. Senators and staffers working on bipartisan legislation say that Bloomberg’s effort to mobilize voters is less effective because it is also energizing gun control opponents. It’s pressuring lawmakers in the wrong way, too. Any legislator targeted by Bloomberg’s campaign who ultimately supports gun control legislation will look like he or she is being bowled over by a nanny-state mayor who wants to tell their constituents how to live their lives. 

In conversations with senators working on bipartisan gun safety legislation, the discussion quickly moves to questions of culture. Democrats need Republican allies from states with a vibrant gun culture. Those Republicans can credibly carry the message that the final bill is not part of some secret plan to seize all the guns. The key point of dispute is what kind of records would be kept as a part of an expanded background check system. Records would help catch criminals, say its proponents. They would give federal gun grabbers a breadcrumb trail to the gun closet for the eventual confiscation, say gun rights advocates.

No Democrat can assure skeptics that the legislation is not the thin edge of the wedge, not even Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who the NRA rates as a friend of gun rights. Manchin has been desperately searching for a Republican partner in this effort. (Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who supports some gun control measures, doesn’t count because he’s not seen as an envoy from gun culture). 

Just as Manchin, Arkansas’ Sen. Mark Pryor, and other Democrats from conservative states are arguing this legislation won’t become a clandestine attempt to take people’s guns, Michael Bloomberg comes along—the mayor who tried to force portion control on sugary drinks and who banned cigarette smoking from public indoor spaces. A greater boogeyman for the gun culture would be hard to find.

Senators and activists working on legislation argue that when gun control becomes a cultural issue they lose leverage. Voters who would be inclined to part ways with the no-compromise views of the NRA are spooked by what they perceive as a threat to personal liberty. The assault weapons ban offered a good illustration of this phenomenon. Gun control advocates recognized, even in the early days after the Newtown, Conn., massacre, that too many voters had a cultural aversion to banning weapons to make an assault weapons ban realistic.

Bloomberg’s effort risks turning a discussion about guns into a war of competing cultures. People in North Carolina and Virginia don’t want people from out-of-state telling them what to do. They especially don’t want a New York City mayor telling them what to do. That is what Sen. Pryor was getting at when he said, “I don’t take gun advice from the mayor of New York City. I listen to Arkansans.”

The ads financed by the Bloomberg group neatly encapsulate the problem of whether the message can survive the messenger. In one ad, a man holding a shotgun is wearing plaid flannel and a camouflage cap. He sits on the tailgate of a pickup truck while children play behind him. He says, “I support comprehensive background checks so criminals and the dangerously mentally ill can’t buy guns.”

The message reflects coordination: frame background checks as a way to protect the public from criminals and the mentally ill, not an attempt to infringe on the rights of innocent law-abiding citizens. But the “hunter” in the ad is a little too stylized, and the spot has rightly been lampooned by conservative commentators for breaking a few basic gun safety rules. (The man points his gun while children play nearby and he has his finger on the actual trigger). “It’s like what a person from Manhattan thinks a hunter looks like,” said one Democratic strategist.

When political operatives talk about how vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014 can survive voting for effective gun control, they say that those senators will be able to rely on their local connections to voters to explain their votes. They claim they’ll have the “messaging tools.” Explaining why their vote wasn’t a capitulation to the New York money of the soda-pinching mayor will require a few more tools. 

These complaints are just the kind of noise lawmakers make when they are being pressured. Lawmakers who want to have it both ways—shake their heads about gun violence but do nothing about it—often try to sidestep the issue by saying they support the goal but not the methods. So these complaints could simply be a dodge. Or, those lawmakers fixated on a bipartisan solution may be deluding themselves about the chances for a deal. In that case, Bloomberg’s campaign and President Obama’s remarks Thursday with victims of gun violence are a necessary push to get squishy lawmakers to fall into line. But can they create enough pressure?

It’s a tough task. Bloomberg inadvertently identified the problem in his interview on Meet the Press last Sunday. As the mayor was explaining the thinking behind his campaign, he said, “when 90 percent of the public want something, and their representatives vote against that, common sense says, they are going to have a price to pay for that. The public is going to eventually wake up and say, ‘I want to put in office somebody that will do the things that I think are necessary for this country.’ ”

Bloomberg is overstating his case. Because even when 90 percent of the public says they agree about something, such as background checks—which is what Bloomberg was talking about in this instance—it isn’t the same as believing that something is “necessary for this country.” That’s a higher level of commitment to the issue than can be divined from a public opinion poll. Just because you are in favor of something doesn’t mean that you’ll become a single-issue voter on that issue—especially if it doesn’t touch your life directly. That is the same problem President Obama encounters when he cites the same 90 percent poll number and says, as he did Thursday, that “nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change.” The voices have to do more than call; they have to march and become active. The number willing to make that kind of commitment is not 90 percent. 

The hurdle has always been that the people who want to fight gun control legislation are more likely to make it a voting issue than those who support gun control legislation. That’s the reality Republicans and Democrats in conservative states feel. Having a New York City mayor threaten that you will be turned out of office if you don’t agree with him doesn’t change that reality one bit. In fact, it just gives you another thing to be against.