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Gun-control debate: How does Bloomberg stack up against the NRA?

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on a mission to challenge the NRA's longtime sway over gun policies. Here are the strengths each side brings to the gun-control debate.

By , Correspondent

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    The National Rifle Association’s Ruthann Sprague shows a visitor how to play the game at a shooting simulator booth at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.
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How do New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his "super political-action committee," Independence USA, stack up against the National Rifle Association (NRA)? Here is a look at the strengths of each side.

What Mr. Bloomberg and his super PAC offer:

Money

The NRA has extraordinarily deep pockets, but still, Bloomberg has a net worth of $27 billion. Undoubtedly, his fortune is his greatest asset.

Recommended: How much do you know about the Second Amendment? A quiz.

"There's never been a level playing field when it comes to dollars and cents," says Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Independence USA. "He's evening the financial playing field."

"Mayor Bloomberg's involvement reflects the first time you have a force with significant money supporting candidates who favor [gun control]," adds John McGlennon, a political scientist at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "That's a big change: For all the involvement of other groups like the Brady Campaign, their ability to compete with the NRA financially just didn't exist. This lets [pro-gun-control] candidates know that there is somebody out there who can support them."

Public support

Bloomberg entered the conversation at a crucial juncture, when the Newtown, Conn., shooting led many people to support more gun-control legislation.

More than 90 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted about a month after the shooting. A separate USA Today/Gallup poll found 58 percent of Americans favor stronger gun laws – the highest level since 2004 and a 15-point increase from a year earlier.

"He has the weight of public opinion," Mr. McGlennon says. "People are looking for some change on gun regulation, especially background checks and large magazines."

Targeting power

The NRA typically supports any candidate to whom it gives a good rating, thereby spreading itself thin, says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. By contrast, Independence USA focuses its resources on the most strategic races and candidates, thus potentially achieving more bang for its buck.

"In general, an NRA endorsement means they have to defend everyone who has a high NRA rating," Mr. Simpson says. "Whereas Bloomberg can pick and choose."

In backing Democratic contender Robin Kelly in the Illinois special primary election, Independence USA used strategic messaging to crowd out other issues – and candidates – and redefine the race on terms favorable to its cause. Ms. Kelly won the primary.

Message from Illinois

The Illinois race marked a turning point for Independence USA and Bloomberg: It sent a clear message to would-be officeholders across the country on both sides of the debate, McGlennon says. "Candidates know that there's always that potential he'll get involved," he says. "It creates an anticipatory reaction on the part of a politician. They know he's looking at races."

Depending on where they stand, he adds, they either "don't want to be damaged badly by it, or they want to stake out a claim."

What the NRA offers:  

Single-minded focus

Gun control is only one of several issues that are important to the mayor and his super PAC. Marriage equality, education reform, public health, and climate change also figure in, diluting Bloomberg's focus.

For the NRA, it's all about guns.

"Many gun owners who join the NRA are very committed to the cause, whereas in normal times, unless there's been a recent shooting, [gun control] is not the only issue in a race," Simpson says. "So the liberals who might support gun control also care about schools, same-sex marriage, and so on, whereas the NRA doesn't care about anything except guns."

Regardless of what polls show about support for gun control, NRA sympathizers make up a passionate minority, adds Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The NRA "cares about [gun rights] more than anybody else. That makes their minority viewpoint more important than the majority viewpoint. People often think within a democracy, numbers matter. But it's also intensity; intensity matters. That's what the NRA has."

Organization

No matter its financial backing, an infant super PAC cannot compete with a 4.5 million-member, 142-year-old organization with grass-roots support in nearly every American community, Mr. Sabato adds. "The NRA is well organized in virtually every rural congressional district in the country," he says. "Even places we think are blue."

Political advantage

That level of organization gives the NRA a distinct political advantage. Its members have helped elect hundreds of gun rights-supporting representatives to Congress over the years, lending the NRA enormous legislative leverage. "Republicans have elected 235 members to Congress. They've got a solid majority on gun issues," Sabato says.

Rating system

The NRA doles out letter grades to politicians based on their voting record on guns. The system rewards and reinforces pro-gun legislators and acts as a warning to those who support gun control. It seems to work: More than half of the members of the 113th Congress have been given an 'A' by the NRA.

For his part, Bloomberg is trying to change this, Mr. Friedman says.

"The message [to pro-gun candidates] is clear," he says. "There's no longer a lining up for the NRA without another voice being heard."

Commitment and loyalty

Perhaps the biggest advantage the NRA boasts is not measurable in dollars or members. It's an all-American reputation, forged over decades, that inspires an overwhelming sense of commitment and loyalty among its members – sentiments that translate into action.

That commitment stems from the organization's dues-based membership, Sabato says. "Those individual members have skin in the game," he says. "Twenty-five dollars means more to them than half a million does to Bloomberg. They care; there's more on the line; they're willing to follow up on their beliefs, show up at public events [and] congressional town halls, write letters to newspapers."

And vote, Simpson adds.

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