The two flawed messengers of the gun debate

March 25, 2013

On "Meet the Press" this past Sunday, the two most recognizable faces in the gun control/rights fight made appearances: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg arguing in favor of more restrictions on guns and NRA head honcho Wayne LaPierre arguing against them.

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Advocates on both sides of the issue could have hoped for more. And that's not because of what either Bloomberg or LaPierre said but rather how they said it and what they represent to the broader culture, which is not as deeply invested in the issue.

Bloomberg first. While the mayor has achieved massive success in business and politics in New York City, his philosophy on government involvement in peoples' lives -- regulating smoking, banning large sugary drinks, etc. -- coupled with the fact he is a billionaire from the urban center of America make it tough for him to persuade voters outside of the Acela Corridor on the issue.

"I do think there are certain times we should infringe on your freedom," Bloomberg acknowledged to David Gregory on Sunday, before adding: "In terms of smoking, if you want to smoke, I think you have a right to do so and I would protect that. If you want to own a gun, I certainly think that's constitutionally protected. You certainly have a right to have a gun if you want. If you want to eat a lot and get fat, you have a right to do it. But our job as government is to inform the public."

Now, LaPierre. While NRA members love him -- and he has helped raised the group's national profile considerably -- LaPierre can come off as angry and overly confrontational. He's all right angles -- and unapologetically so. (If you need evidence, check out LaPierre's speech late last year on gun violence -- the first public remarks by the NRA following the murders in Newtown, Conn.)

"The whole thing, universal checks, is a dishonest premise," LaPierre said Sunday. "There's not a bill on the Hill that provides a universal check. Criminals aren't going to be checked."

Simply put: Bloomberg and LaPierre are both easily caricatured by their political rivals. The ease with which the other side can draw a fantastical image of either a big city mayor pushing his agenda onto you or an angry man clutching a gun and brooking no compromises ensures that the debate over guns -- and what our society's relationship to them will and should be -- won't really ever get started.

Remember that most people are low-information news consumers/voters. That means that lowest-common-denominator attacks -- just like those we outlined in the paragraph above -- are what the majority of people take away from these major national issues. The deeper conversation never happens.

So, why are Bloomberg and LaPierre so front and center? Because the people with the bank accounts get the loudest voices. Bloomberg's massive personal wealth and willingness to spend from it means that any time he wants to speak publicly about guns (or anything else), it gets wall-to-wall coverage. (To Bloomberg's credit, the new ad he is financing in 13 states doesn't make mention of him at all and instead is an appeal to gun owners.) And LaPierre, as head of the NRA, makes the calls about where he appears and where he doesn't.

While neither Bloomberg nor LaPierre is the ideal messenger for his side in the gun debate, it's also not clear whether any messenger could change the political dynamics of the issue. The fact is that guns are a geographic and cultural issue; what they mean in Arkansas and what they mean in New York City are two vastly different things. And, it's hard to imagine anyone -- on either side of the fight -- who could alter that reality.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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