Michael Bloomberg and America’s guns
New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is stepping in where President Barack Obama fears to tread — confronting America’s powerful gun lobby. In the country that holds a commanding global lead in civilian gun ownership, it promises to be a hard fight.
No matter how it goes, America’s position at the top of the list of gun-owning nations looks secure. Up to 280 million guns are estimated to be in private hands and the arsenal is growing year by year. On a guns-per-capita basis, the United States (90 guns per 100 residents) is way ahead of second-ranked Yemen (61 per 100), according to the authoritative Small Arms Survey issued by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.
Obama has been a sore disappointment for advocates of tighter gun controls, and a boon to gun manufacturers and dealers. Predictions that his administration would swiftly work towards greater restrictions helped spark a huge run on firearms after his election. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the country’s biggest gun lobby, said its members reported widespread shortages of ammunition.
Supply and demand are back in balance and those who rushed to stock up need not have feared an Obama assault on gun ownership. The president has shown no eagerness for stepping into the political minefield of gun legislation. On the contrary. Obama rowed back in haste after his attorney general, Eric Holder, prompted alarm among gun lovers by saying he wanted to reinstate a ban on assault weapons that was allowed to lapse under the Bush administration.
There are no signs either that Obama intends to fulfil campaign pledges on other hot-button gun legislation issues such as closing the so-called gun show loophole that allows private citizen-to-citizen sales without background checks, or the Tiahrt amendment, which limits disclosing information on the sale of guns used in crimes.
Josh Sugarmann, head of the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, a group advocating tighter controls, describes Obama’s attitude so far as “deeply disheartening” and says the president broke campaign promises on gun legislation.
Why? History provides an explanation: the last time the United States had a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, the party aggressively pushed gun control legislation and suffered crushing defeats at the polls, in part thanks to opposition stirred by the NRA. The Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 and held it until 2006.
Enter mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, a city where he is popular and guns are not. In 2006, Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), a group that wants to make it more difficult for criminals to get their hands on guns. MAIG’s growth has been explosive: from 15 in 2006 to 250 in 2007 to 451 now.
BATTLE OF GIANTS
That makes, as a headline in the Washington Post put it, for “a battle of goliaths” pitting Bloomberg and his group against the NRA, whose four million members tend to see restrictions such as unregulated sales from private citizens (through the gun show loophole) as an assault on the U.S. constitution’s second amendment.
It says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Exactly what that means (arms for militia members? for individuals?) was one of the most passionately disputed legal questions in the United States for decades until the Supreme Court last year ruled that it gave individual Americans the right to bear arms. The court also allowed for some restrictions on gun ownership.
In July, the U.S. Senate defeated a measure, introduced by a Republican Senator, John Thune, that would have allowed licensed gun owners to carry hidden, loaded weapons from states with weak gun laws to states with tough ones. The proposal failed largely because of energetic lobbying by Bloomberg’s mayors. It was a rare setback for the NRA and Bloomberg made clear he would remain on the offensive.
“If you want to beat the NRA,” he said on a television show this week, “you have to go out and get your message out. And it costs money to do that … You know, the NRA doesn’t spend that much money. If you look at what the real numbers are, I think that we can pull together here and raise enough money.”
Bloomberg has spent almost $3 million of his own money (Forbes estimates his personal fortune at $16 billion) on the mayor’s group. The NRA’s annual budget is around $200 million.
For Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s Executive Vice President and CEO, talk about money is beside the point. “Bloomberg is clearly out of step with the majority of Americans,” he said in an interview. “Our membership has been increasing by 40,000 to 50,000 a month since the middle of last year. We hope to reach five million before too long.”
LaPierre is confident that the NRA will prevail in future legislative wrangling, not least because “there has been a sea change in the center of the Democratic Party.” Ironically, the vote that defeated the Thune amendment gives backing to that view. The bill required 60 votes to pass. It fell short by two. Of the 58 votes in favor, 20 were from Democrats. (Editing by Kieran Murray)