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 last week, 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.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”