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Michael Bloomberg as counterweight to NRA: What are his chances?

Billionaire and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg taps his money, and political zeal, to counter the political clout of the NRA. The gun rights group sees 'billions of reasons to take him seriously.'

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / March 26, 2013

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is using his wealth and political acumen to back candidates who favor gun control, in a bid to counterbalance the political influence of the National Rifle Association.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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The National Rifle Association boasts big numbers. It has 4.5 million members and a budget of more than $300 million. It's 142 years old and is arguably unmatched in funding, focus, and fervor.

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But now, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with his "super political-action committee," is emerging as a main counterweight to the NRA.

The billionaire businessman-turned-politician is pursuing an ambitious agenda to change the national conversation on guns. He brings to the table a net worth of $27 billion, a record of pursuing unpopular causes he deems important, and the defiant zeal of a man nearing the end of his career who's decided to make gun control part of his legacy.

How effective can a single person be against one of the most influential lobbying groups in Washington?

It's clear Mr. Bloomberg won't travel an easy road. "Any longtime observer of American politics is going to put his money on the NRA," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

But then again, Mr. Sabato says, don't count the former media mogul out. "He has enough money to be a real counterweight," he says. "Bloomberg combines almost unlimited cash with a successful politician's understanding of voters and issues, so there's no question that he tops any other NRA opponent, even longtime gun-control advocates like [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein."

Even NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam says: "We have billions of reasons to take him seriously," adding, "He is a well-financed opponent."

Bloomberg so far has poured roughly $12 million into his five-month-old super PAC, Independence USA, to back eight candidates in races across America. He chose them because of several issues, including marriage equality and education reform, but the top issue appears to be gun control. In particular, one race in Illinois – a special primary election in February to fill a congressional seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr. – put Bloomberg and his super PAC in the headlines.

One of the Democratic contenders was Debbie Halvorson, who had previously been given an 'A' rating by the NRA. The other main contender, Robin Kelly, was backed by Bloomberg. A $2.5 million flurry of spending by his super PAC, bankrolling an aggressive ad campaign, turned Ms. Halvorson's NRA rating into a scarlet letter 'A' of a liability. Ms. Kelly emerged victorious in the primary.

"The NRA for too long has held the megaphone," says John Feinblatt, chief adviser to Bloomberg. "The NRA has had the ear of Congress for too long, and the mayor believes it's important for the facts to come out."

What's on a billionaire's wish list? For Bloomberg, it's legislation requiring background checks for all gun sales, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, a ban on military-style assault weapons, and legislation making gun trafficking a felony.

He has also urged President Obama to prosecute those who lie on background checks, remove restrictions on gun-violence research, order federal agencies to provide information for a national background-check database, and appoint a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which has been without a leader since 2006.

"It's just an outrage, and the public, I think, should stand up," Bloomberg said in a Feb. 19 briefing. "I'm part of the public, and I happen to have some money. That's what I am trying to do with my money – trying to get us some sensible gun laws."

The mayor is taking a multipronged approach to his national agenda: money, media, and old-fashioned politicking.

Besides Kelly from Illinois, Independence USA has thrown $1 million behind then-Rep. Bob Dold (R) of Illinois, who has backed gun-control measures; $2.4 million behind Florida Democratic congressional candidate Val Demings, a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a proponent of "responsible gun ownership"; and $1.1 million behind Connecticut Republican congressional candidate Andrew Roraback, who has said his party must be open to "sensible gun control."

Those three candidates, however, did not win in the November elections. (But Independence USA has tallied wins in the five other races it's entered, most of which centered on other issues.)

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