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Bloomberg's Going Long on Gun Control. But 2014 Comes First.

AP/Seth Wenig

Today’s announcement by Michael Bloomberg that he is investing $50 million in a new organization to fight for gun control legislation in Washington and state capitals is, on one level, but a confirmation of what a cover story in this magazine laid out a year ago—his ambition to build a lasting counterweight to the National Rifle Association. The new organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, is essentially a merger of two groups that were already working closely together—Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which Bloomberg co-founded in 2006 and supported with millions of his own dollars, and Moms Demand Action, a group that sprang up on Facebook after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Since Bloomberg is no longer a mayor himself, a rebranding was in order.

Still, there are some interesting kernels to be gleaned from the announcement and interviews with the leaders of the new effort about the direction that the movement is headed in after a mostly discouraging year that saw a proposal to require background checks on nearly all gun sales surge forward post-Newtown only to fizzle out five votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Bloomberg’s in it for good. As much as he has spent on the gun issue in the past, there was always the chance that the capriciousness of the mega-wealthy might lead him to focus on other causes, either out of frustration with a lack of progress on the issue or because he was no longer actually mayor of a city wrestling with gun violence on a daily basis. Instead, Bloomberg is doubling down. “You have to be careful if there’s two issues you care about, and they’re good on, one bad on the other, what do you do? And I think you’ve got to pick your issue. In our case, my case, it’s guns,” he told the New York Times. “I care very much about immigration. But guns are the No. 1 thing. So I’ve got a senator who’s running for re-election. He’s terrible on guns but good on immigration. I’m going after him. That’s it.”

His team knows where it’s getting beat. Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action, like the other top gun-control groups, have for the past year been rejecting the overly fatalistic assessments of their cause—they note that they got a half-dozen senators with A ratings from the NRA to vote for the background-check bill (which was called Manchin-Toomey), that candidates opposed by the NRA have winning more than losing in recent years (see most recently Terry McAuliffe in the NRA's home state of Virginia) and that they’ve gotten tough new laws passed not only in blue states like New York and Maryland but also in purple states such as Colorado (albeit at the cost of a few state senators.)

That said, they know where they are still falling short: in the numbers of calls and town-hall speakers they can muster to reach out to legislators at key moments, the numbers of voters who are not only supportive of gun control but prioritize it above others, and the amount of lobbying muscle they can put forward in state capitals. That’s why a large chunk of the $50 million will go not toward TV ads but toward sustaining Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ existing 80-person staff, which will be ramped up in election seasons. “What we are recognizing and tacking to deal with is that the 5 million members of the NRA are real and passionate and they vote, and our folks have to do that too,” said Mark Glaze, director of the Mayors group, in an interview today. “Our job is to tap into and activate the passion that still exists after Newtown. You have to go and find those people. You literally need staff out there with clipboards talking with people and signing them up, people who haven’t had a way to express that passion. Do it the old fashioned way—ask them to sign a pledge card, give them the information they need about their own candidates.”

Americans can keep their AR-15 military-style rifles. The new group is making clear that as ambitious as its aim to transform the debate may be, its legislative goals are going to be modest. The focus will remain, as it did last year, on expanding background checks to include gun shows and private sales, rather than on trying to ban semi-automatic assault-rifles like the AR-15s that were used in both Newtown and Aurora, Colo. It’s simple math, says Bloomberg: “You can have a ban on assault weapons. But assault weapons kill 400 people a year. They get a lot of press. But its 400 vs. 31,000 with handguns.” With the background-check issue stalled in Washington for the moment, the fight for now will be mostly at the state level—for instance, in Washington state, where supporters got a referendum to expand background checks on the November ballot.

And in many states, the effort is going to be about resisting the expansion of gun rights, rather than pushing for new restrictions. Speaking with reporters today, Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, touted the group’s recent success in beating back bills to allow gun owners to carry weapons anywhere in South Carolina without a permit, to allow guns in school parking lots in Oklahoma, and to allow guns in all local parks in Tennessee. The new group also plans to spend quite a bit on gun-death prevention issues that go beyond lobbying for restrictions, with research and outreach around suicide prevention and domestic violence.

The anti-Bloomberg backlash will only grow. The NRA and other gun-rights groups have done their utmost to cast the gun-control movement as the plaything of an ideologically-committed plutocrat, much as Democrats have tried to do with the attacks on Obamacare by the Koch brothers. That anti-Bloomberg framing seemed to undermine his group’s effort to protect pro-gun control state senators in a recall election last fall in Colorado, and it will surely be taken up more strongly now. Watts, of Moms Demand Action, acknowledges this potential downside to merging her group with Bloomberg’s, but says, essentially, that the benefit of Bloomberg’s support outweighs it: “If I learned anything over the past 18 months or so, there is very little we can do that the vocal minority will not attack,” she said in an interview today. “At the end of the day, Mayor Bloomberg is investing his money to save lives—not to benefit himself, but to save American lives, and I think that’s heroic.”

Bloomberg himself seems either unaware of this dynamic or dismissive of it: “I don’t know what your perception is of our reputation, and mine, the name Bloomberg around the country,” he told the Times. But every place he goes, he added, “You’re a rock star. People yelling out of cabs, ‘Hey, way to go!’ ” Memo to Bloomberg: the best evidence of how he’s viewed “around the country” is probably not “people yelling out of cabs.”

The new group’s first big test is this fall’s election. The overriding political aim of the Bloomberg’s new effort is to reshape the perceptions around the gun issue, to make more elected officials who might be inclined to support tougher gun laws rethink their assumption that the politically safe and expedient vote is to vote with the NRA. And the first real test for doing so, post-Manchin-Toomey, is the 2014 election. It’s an imperfect test, because it just so happens that none of the Republicans from purplish states who voted against Manchin-Toomey (Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Rob Portman in Ohio, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, among others) are up this fall. That has left Bloomberg’s team in the awkward position of threatening only the Senate Democrats who voted against Manchin-Toomey and are up this fall, Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mark Begich in Alaska. Immediately after Manchin-Toomey, the group ran a tough ad in Arkansas attacking Pryor for his vote, which drew a counter from Pryor and criticism from Washington Democrats who noted that Bloomberg was only helping raise the likelihood that Republicans would gain control of the Senate.

I pressed the leaders of the new group on this score and they’re still talking tough about holding Pryor and Begich accountable, regardless of their party. “We will support people who voted to protect Americans and we will make it clear that people who didn't, those candidates don't deserve a vote,” said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's top adviser on gun policy. That said, there is no mention of any additional ads being run against the two men; the punishments mentioned were limited to urging big Democratic donors in New York and California to withhold support from the candidates and urging, via the grassroots Moms Demand Action networks, that voters in those states to think twice before voting for them.

The clearer and more crucial test for the new group will be making sure they provide adequate support to the Democratic senators who did vote for Manchin-Toomey despite being up for a tough reelection in strong gun-rights states—notably, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Kay Hagan in North Carolina. Watts says the new group will be doing everything it can through its new “Gun Sense Voter Program," which will include scorecards on candidates similar to those the NRA puts out, to be sure that pro-gun control moms in those states are aware of the senators’ vote and prioritize it at the voting booth. When and whether to run ads praising the senators for their position is a trickier matter—the senators may as well prefer to see the issue lie low for the time being, or at least until the NRA and their opponents start coming after them for Manchin-Toomey. Glaze, for one, predicts that the senators may actually not need that much help from the new group, given that the legislation they voted for is supported by such large majorities, even in North Carolina and Louisiana. “My honest guess is that Landrieu and Hagan are not going to need a lot of defending for a policy that has 90 percent support across the country.”

That may be, but both senators are at the very top of the Republican target list, and if one or both of them fall, you can be sure that the NRA will be claiming the credit, regardless of how much guns figured in the mix. So much of the gun lobby’s dominance the past few decades has been a matter of perception, conjuring an omnipotence far out of bounds with reality, which in turn becomes reality. To start winning the long game, the newly empowered opposition will need to start denying the NRA the raw material for such conjuring in the short term, and this year, that means doing whatever it can for Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan.