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.”