Bloomberg vs. the NRA

Over an 84-hour period during the July Fourth weekend in Chicago, 82 people were shot in gun violence — virtually one every hour — and 16 of the shootings were fatal. As stunning a statistic as that represents, it once again seems unlikely that gun control legislation of any kind will be considered or passed, especially in this, an election year. What may have an impact, however, is a proposal by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) designed to force political candidates to openly face the gun control issue.

He is committing $50 million of his personal fortune to build a national grass roots movement that will pressure lawmakers to introduce and pass more restrictive gun laws. Borrowing from the lobbying book of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the proposal will target all candidates this year, and make it difficult for any of them to hide from taking a position on gun control.

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Bloomberg's proposal certainly must have sent a chill through this year's congressional candidates in learning that the Bloomberg money will go to surveying all federal candidates in the 2014 midterm elections, by having them complete a 10-part questionnaire that forces them to state publicly where they stand on such issues as the expansion of background checks for gun purchases, tougher laws on gun trafficking and outlawing super-size gun magazines.

This is an issue that frightens politicians, because they have seen the political careers of colleagues destroyed by the aggressive, effective opposition of the gun lobby. It is pathetic to see members of Congress uncomfortably dressed up in hunting attire, complete with gleaming new shotguns, posing for photographs to prove that they are down-home guys who love to go tramping in the fields and woods shooting small animals. They often look like they are going to a costume party. But if Bloomberg's millions succeed, and he promises to spend even more money on the issue, it will for the first time force political candidates to go on the record on gun control issues.

What the NRA has so successfully accomplished over the years is in creating a ratings system to let its membership know the candidates they should oppose and the candidates they should support. It has been an effective system because the gun control supporters have generally ceded the field to the NRA's 5 million, one-issue committed members. The organization spends an estimated $20 million annually on political campaigns. It also helps that so many members of Congress from either party are craven and easily spooked. Bloomberg is upping the ante to double that $20 million. He is determined to have a major impact on the 2014 elections and to establish an effective competitive balance with the NRA beyond this November elections.

Bloomberg wasn't successful in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. school shootings when a group he founded, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, tried to expand background check laws. The Senate rejected a background check compromise bill, and there is little hope it will be revived. That action ignores significant indications that Americans support background checks for gun purchases. The Quinnipiac University results for June 24 through 30, in a survey of registered voters, found that 86 percent of Republicans and 98 percent of Democrats support background checks. During that same period, 50 percent of voters were in support of stricter gun control laws, while 47 percent oppose.

As ambivalent as those latter numbers seem, there is every indication that the NRA's powerful campaigning hasn't done as well as it should have against the usually tepid, disorganized drive of gun control advocates. It promises to be a more well-matched battle by the forces for responsible gun control and the NRA forces in opposition to even the most elementary proposals. The NRA knows that the national lawmakers lack the viscera to confront the issue.

It may also be significant when former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough (Fla.) of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" was critical of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a man Scarborough strongly supports and one who has been a frequent guest on his show. Christie, a man with ambitions to be the Republican's 2016 candidate for president, had vetoed a measure that would have limited the size of magazines from 15 to 10 rounds. In his on-air criticism, Scarborough referred to Christie's convoluted reason for the veto as " ... one of the stupidest arguments I think I've ever heard."

What happened in Newtown and in Chicago represents a growing lawlessness that threatens every American community. No community can afford to tolerate that kind of gun violence, but nothing will change without unequivocal gun control legislation. And maybe, just maybe, if Bloomberg successfully forces political candidates to realize that they can't hide from the gun control issue and that they are answerable to a growing segment of the electorate concerned about gun violence, it may be possible that rational gun control legislation can be passed.

Conconi is a veteran Washington journalist and the host of the Internet public affairs program Focus Washington.