During the last major push for gun-control legislation, Jim Brady, the former White House press secretary who was shot during an assassination attempt on President Reagan, led the charge. Today, it’s New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who might have a tougher time connecting with voters across the country.
While Gabrielle Giffords, the former representative who was shot in Tucson two years ago, has been one of the leading voices in the current debate, her group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, has lacked the funding and high profile to match the National Rifle Association’s reach.
Enter Bloomberg and the gun-control group he cofounded, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He has pledged millions of dollars in an effort to sway public opinion toward stricter gun laws. The aim is to boost momentum for a Senate bill that would require background checks on all gun purchases and impose harsher penalties on illegal gun trafficking. This week, the group launched a 13-state, $12 million ad blitz aimed at putting a spotlight on the issue in the states while senators are back home for a recess. Congress returns to Washington next month.
But the criticism for this new effort goes beyond just the policy. NRA head Wayne LaPierre took to the Sunday talk shows to criticize the man behind the ads.
Bloomberg "can’t spend enough of his $27 billion to try to impose his will on the American public,” LaPierre said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “They don’t want him in their restaurants, they don’t want him in their homes, they don’t want him telling what food to eat. They sure don’t want him telling what self-defense firearms to own. He can’t buy America.”
Fresh off a court setback in his controversial ban on large soda drinks in New York City, a move that has been mocked by conservatives, a bruised Bloomberg might not be the best person to carry the mantel for gun-control advocates. The blunt-spoken billionaire mayor may be popular in Washington and New York, but that popularity might not extend to other areas of the country.
“He has zero effectiveness, he has none,” said one Republican strategist who asked to remain anonymous because of his ties to Bloomberg. “It’s a twofer: He’s a big-city mayor—and not just any big-city mayor, New York—and you have the nanny-in-chief of America.... He is so antagonistic that he’s probably displacing Dianne Feinstein amongst NRA loyalists.”
Billionaires financing initiatives aren’t new to the national political scene. From the Koch brothers to Sheldon Adelson, billionaires have been able to wield influence among voters for years. But that doesn’t mean their actions are popular.
“It’s always potentially impactful when a person threatens to spend $12 million, but I’ve noticed that Americans seem to be a bit resistant to these billionaires who think they can buy whatever they want, think they can purchase the direction of America to suit their own needs,” said Curt Anderson, a Republican strategist in Washington.
Mark Glaze, executive director of the mayors' coalition, Bloomberg’s group, said personality should not be relevant to the debate. The argument should not be about the mayor but about gun violence in the United States.
“If the NRA wants to make this about Mike Bloomberg, that’s their right,” Glaze said. “If they want to talk about politics and tactics, that’s their business. But it seems like a waste of the moment.”
While a better-funded Giffords or possibly a former law-enforcement official might have more success connecting with voters across the country, Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, believes voters will react to the policies and not the man pushing them.
“In the end, these activities will occur without everything being seen as Bloomberg,” Mann said. “In any case, it’s less trying to pressure a member of Congress to change his vote than it is making it easier for someone who’d like to vote this way to do so.”