Can Michael Bloomberg really build a gun-control lobby bigger than the NRA?


Gun violence survivors and activists, including Eve Stevens, center, gather at the National Rifle Association's headquarters in in Fairfax, Va., on Dec. 14, 2013, to mark the anniversary of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., and call for greater gun control. (Dayna Smith/ For The Washington Post)

For most of the past decade, if you could even hear the voice of national gun-control advocacy over the roar of the NRA, it probably came from mayors. It came from Michael Bloomberg in New York, Tom Menino in Boston and Michael Nutter in Philadelphia. It came from their national coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group that kept trying to make the point that gun control looks like a bipartisan issue if you just ask the elected officials who deal most closely with the collateral damage.

Their effort, though, has not been terribly successful in Washington. And so on Wednesday Bloomberg announced that he's recalibrating the movement. Mayors are now pairing with moms. Together they'll crib directly from the playbook of the NRA. They'll focus on statehouses if Congress won't listen. And under a new umbrella group, "Everytown for Gun Safety" -- backed by $50 million of Bloomberg's own money -- they're aiming to create the elusive political counterweight to the NRA.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns is folding into this new group, alongside Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grass-roots group created only in the wake of the December 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn. The new effort will contain a political action committee, a nonprofit educational arm, and a 501(c)(4) lobbying arm. Its board of advisers is bipartisan and big-name, including former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge (R), who served as Homeland Security secretary under George W. Bush, former Joint Chiefs chairman Michael Mullen, and mega-investor Warren Buffet.

The group is pledging to turn out a million voters who will be as invested in ending gun violence just as the NRA's members are in protecting gun rights. And in many ways, the new group is parroting the NRA's strategy, with its mobilization of emotional voters and black-and-white punishment of politicians who don't vote its way. It's even co-opting the NRA's mantra.

"The gun lobby has done a good job of making a vocal minority afraid that their guns will be taken away," Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action said on a media call Wednesday. "But moms are afraid their kids will be taken away."

This is precisely the kind of message that mayors alone could never deliver, and it looks an awful lot like the one that mothers have successfully wielded against the liquor lobby. The broader coalition is also a savvy play to recast gun violence as more than an inner-city problem. That idea is baked into the very name "Everytown."

The group, though, still retains one defining feature that may have also held back Mayors Against Illegal Guns: Bloomberg himself. For all his clout and money (that $50 million is real money compared to what the NRA spends), Bloomberg is a divisive personality. And the idea -- which he underscored to the New York Times on Wednesday -- that this new group will punish even wayward Democrats will be deeply divisive, too, particularly on the eve of a midterm election when Democrats fear losing the Senate. Jeremy W. Peters, writing in the Times, suggests that Bloomberg may not grasp these limitations himself:

He was also dismissive of skeptics who might question whether he could ever build an organization that rivaled the N.R.A. And he seemed unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, the ways in which his own persona — of a billionaire, Big Gulp-banning former mayor of New York — could undercut his efforts, especially in rural, conservative states.

“I don’t know what your perception is of our reputation, and mine, the name Bloomberg around the country,” he said. But every place he goes, he added, “You’re a rock star. People yelling out of cabs, ‘Hey, way to go!’ ”

It may be telling that Bloomberg wasn't on the conference call introducing Everytown to the national press. Clearly, Everytown is looking to leverage his influence and ambition but with the message of someone like Watts.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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