Bloomberg Starts Anti-Gun Organization to Rival the NRA
A new gun control campaign backed by $50m from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged on Wednesday to focus its efforts outside Washington, claiming to be the first nationwide movement to rival the National Rifle Association.
Despite initial attention on wealthy backers such as Bloomberg and Warren Buffett, leaders of the group, Everytown For Gun Safety, insisted their strategy differs from previous attempts at reform because they would seek to influence politicians through grassroots campaigning rather than primarily by lobbying Congress.
“Everytown will continue to push for change in Washington, but will also move beyond Congress and bring the fight for commonsense gun policies to state capitals, to corporate boards, and to state and federal elections,” said its president John Feinblatt.
“These are fields of play formerly occupied almost solely by the gun lobby,” he added in a conference call with reporters.
But Feinblatt, who is also a policy adviser to Bloomberg, bristled at the media focus on the former mayor's involvement after he announced the initiative in an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday.
The two groups merging to form Everytown – Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America – already have 34,000 smaller donors, insisted Feinblatt, who rejects the top-down characterisation of the group by its opponents.
Everytown aims to grow the groups' combined membership from 1.5m to 2.5m over the next year, through a range of initiatives from a traditional political action committee through to "stroller jams” and “diaper-dumps” outside city hall offices, said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action.
“This is the first time there has ever been a grassroots network in the states, on the ground,” said Watts, whose group started as a Facebook page after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
“We can get people to act not just online, but offline as well. That has never happened in the history of this country.”
The tension between challenging the NRA's giant membership with grassroots political activism and countering its money by relying on divisive corporate donors like Bloomberg and Buffett is seen at the heart of the dilemma now facing the US gun control movement.
A year ago on Thursday, attempts to pass limited background checks on gun buyers fell five votes short of the 60 needed to make progress in the US Senate despite a wave of national revulsion following the Newtown shooting.
All but three of the 45 senators who blocked passage of the bill had received campaign contributions from firearms lobbyists, and they raised record sums from their members and gun manufacturers in the months following Newtown.
Bloomberg's latest pledge to spend at least $50m will go a long way to countering such money spent directly by the NRA and other pro-gun groups.
Latest election disclosures by the NRA for the 2014 midterm election cycle shows it has just $13.7m cash on hand and has only spent $241,000 so far on directly supporting candidates.
But senators who voted against last year's background check bill, particularly four rebel Democrats, fear the negative political consequences of crossing the NRA far more than direct campaign contributions.
Some of this is due to spending on attack ads against reformers running in conservative states, but Everytown concedes much of it is also due to the effective political mobilisation of gun rights campaigners.
“This is a battle for the hearts and minds of Americans,” Bloomberg told NBC on Monday.
The NRA has not issued a formal response to the new initiative, and did not respond to requests for comment, but its supporters have been quick to point out the challenge facing Bloomberg in matching their passionate campaign base.
“He’s got the money to waste,” Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, told the New York Times. “So I guess he’s free to do so. But frankly, I think he’s going to find out why his side keeps losing.”