IN A FINE piece in The New Republic, on Tuesday, TNR senior editor Alec MacGillis explains how — cue the Mark Twain scholars — news of the demise of the gun-law reform movement is greatly exaggerated, despite April’s woeful surprise in the United States Senate.
MacGillis lays out the background of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Independence USA, two organizations built and bankrolled by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — the two prominent and well-capitalized groups that have lately taken point in the battle against the National Rifle Association and its stranglehold on conservative Washington and the nation’s gun culture.
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First, the history:
“Bloomberg created a Super PAC, Independence USA. In 2012, it spent $10 million on ads supporting pro-gun-control candidates running against NRA-friendly opponents in districts where polling suggested such a stance should be a liability. This investment was credited with unseating Democratic Representative Joe Baca of California. In the past year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which now has 975 mayors, has expanded from 15 paid staff to more than 50, with lobbyists in Washington and field organizers around the country who will likely be deployed to states with legislative fights looming. The organization is also developing its own candidate rating system.
“Above all, Bloomberg is planning to hit the airwaves on a scale Washington has not fully grasped. ‘He described his effort last year as putting his toe in the water,’ says Wolfson. Bloomberg plans to spend heavily in the 2014 midterms to support Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Hagan, both of whom voted for background checks. And he plans to spend very heavily against the Democrats up for reelection who voted against the bill—Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor.
“Pryor is no NRA favorite — he had a C- rating before the vote — while Begich is a former member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. But Wolfson emphasized that only their votes on the bill counted. “It will be critical to ensure that people who voted for it are reelected, and people who voted against it pay an electoral price,” he says. I asked Wolfson if he was worried that going after Pryor — whom they regard as especially vulnerable — would simply lead to his replacement with a pro-NRA Republican. “The fact that a Republican would get elected is irrelevant to our cause,” says Wolfson. “On this issue, a Republican would not be worse.”
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BUT WOLFSON’S position poses at least a challenge, and maybe a problem, for the gun-law reform movement generally and Democrats in particular. A willingness to go after senators and Congressional members on the basis of their positions on this one issue risks the loss of those senators or Congressmembers otherwise philosophically disposed to support other progressive (read: Democratic) initiatives — from immigration reform to more populist economic policies to voting to improve the nation’s infrastructure.
Voters overall may not be quite as ideologically rigid as Bloomberg and Wolfson are on gun control (or as uniformly rabid as the pro-gun lobby). As big as the issue is as a national phenomenon, gun control doesn’t resonate in every state with equal force. In many states, gun-law reform will be one of several issues that compete for voters’ attentions in 2014. Those various local issues — remember what Tip O’Neill said — will have equal weight with the voters who’ll ultimately decide the importance of gun-law reform.
There’s a boulevard of space between the Democrats and the Republicans on most pressing domestic issues. Successfully targeting Democratic candidates on the gun issue may be a short-term victory for Bloomberg and MAIG. But defeating red-state Democrats who are vulnerable on guns means losing their votes on everything else. From the standpoint of anyone who thinks the control of Congress matters, and from the perspective of voters (who tend to be locally panoramic in off-year elections), that’s not necessarily the best tradeoff.
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Previous gun-control efforts have foundered on the pursuit of gun-law reform tout court, one haymaker of a law that institutes comprehensive reform. MacGillis observes that what’s mightily helped the emerging gun-law reform movement is a concentration, a focus on the One Achievable Thing that matters as a practical first step: background checks.
“In my conversations with advocates, many remarked on the unity that has emerged after Newtown. The movement soon coalesced around expanding background checks, although taking on assault weapons or ammunition clips would have been a more direct response to recent mass shootings. But police chiefs say background checks would have the biggest impact on gun violence. (An estimated 40 percent of sales are made without them.)
“This harmony may be harder to preserve in the future — Giffords’s organization represents gun owners interested in moderate regulations, while other groups want more aggressive reforms. But for now, they’re coordinating on a near-hourly basis. ‘I’ve been working with the different groups for many years, and they could never focus on the one thing we were trying to do,’ says Representative Carolyn McCarthy, the New York Democrat whose husband was killed in the 1993 shooting on the Long Island Railroad. ‘This time everybody’s come together.’”
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What’s next? MacGillis reports:
“It is unclear when Reid might introduce the bill again — possibly between the July 4 and August recesses. In anticipation of a House vote, Moms Demand Action members in upstate New York are meeting with their Republican representatives. Other groups are targeting Eric Cantor, whose suburban Richmond district is surprisingly supportive, according to polls conducted by Bloomberg’s group.”
“The defeat did not, as pundits predicted, cause the activists’ momentum to dissipate. Instead, it turned out to be a potent recruiting tool. In the days after the vote, Moms Demand Action saw a 30 percent increase in membership. Giffords’s group has raised an astonishing $11 million from 53,500 donors in the past four months. Moms Demand Action has continued to hold protests at the district offices of lawmakers they believe are persuadable. (Their specialty is the ‘stroller jam,’ where moms with strollers and small kids cluster in a corridor or office to make their presence felt.) Bloomberg is assisting this effort by covering travel costs and helping groups bring on family members and survivors as full-time staff.”The gun-law reform movement is beginning to prove it has the resilience, the long-term endurance — and frankly the wit and imagination — to matter in a way it never has before. It’s sending a message to Wayne LaPierre and the Second Amendment strict constructionists: Every goodbye ain’t gone. Watch your back. And your flanks.
Image credits: MAIG logo: © 2013 Mothers Against Illegal Guns. NRA logo: © 2013 National Rifle Association.