And how they’re taking on what’s left of the NRA. Fascinating.
But instead of increasing the pressure on politicians, gun-control advocates believed they could prevail through reason alone. While the NRA issued members voting instructions, their adversaries produced well-researched reports on gun violence. “We’ve always been too polite, by appealing to politicians to do the right thing, … appealing to their conscience and hoping they’d come around even when the evidence suggested they wouldn’t,” says Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “We went too far into the realm of educating the public and ceded the field of politics to the NRA. That was disastrous for us.”
All along, though, the gun lobby’s vulnerabilities were there for a serious opponent to exploit. Long before Wayne LaPierre’s rambling press conference after Newtown, the NRA had barreled well out of the mainstream—take LaPierre’s 1995 characterization of federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs.” It has become increasingly easy to find gun owners openly critical of the organization’s extreme politics. And demographic trends have concentrated its most ardent members in ever-narrower regional pockets.
That serious opponent has finally emerged. In 2006, Bloomberg formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns with 14 of his counterparts. One of the group’s first moves was to dispatch undercover investigators to Virginia gun shops—the source of many guns on the streets of northern cities—where they recorded footage showing how easy it was to make illegal purchases.10 In 2010, Bloomberg hired Wolfson, a hard-bitten veteran of three Hillary Clinton campaigns. Listening to the mayor’s team discuss gun control is very different from talking to longtime advocates—the conversations are an odd mash-up of the ruthlessness of campaign hacks and a moral crusade. For an administration that has made its share of ethical compromises—disregarding term limits, pulverizing opponents with the mayor’s personal fortune—gun control has become the ultimate validation.
What Bloomberg has embarked upon now is nothing less than the construction of a mirror image to the NRA. There is plenty of latent public support for gun control, his logic goes, but politicians only see a risk in voting for it. He wants to reverse that calculation.
To that end, Bloomberg created a Super PAC, Independence USA. In 2012, it spent $10 million on ads supporting pro-gun-control candidates running against NRA-friendly opponents in districts where polling suggested such a stance should be a liability. This investment was credited with unseating Democratic Representative Joe Baca of California. In the past year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which now has 975 mayors, has expanded from 15 paid staff to more than 50, with lobbyists in Washington and field organizers around the country who will likely be deployed to states with legislative fights looming. The organization is also developing its own candidate rating system.
Above all, Bloomberg is planning to hit the airwaves on a scale Washington has not fully grasped. “He described his effort last year as putting his toe in the water,” says Wolfson. Bloomberg plans to spend heavily in the 2014 midterms to support Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Hagan, both of whom voted for background checks.11 And he plans to spend very heavily against the Democrats up for reelection who voted against the bill—Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor.
Pryor is no NRA favorite—he had a C- rating before the vote—while Begich is a former member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. But Wolfson emphasized that only their votes on the bill counted. “It will be critical to ensure that people who voted for it are reelected, and people who voted against it pay an electoral price,” he says. I asked Wolfson if he was worried that going after Pryor—whom they regard as especially vulnerable—would simply lead to his replacement with a pro-NRA Republican. “The fact that a Republican would get elected is irrelevant to our cause,” says Wolfson. “On this issue, a Republican would not be worse.”