Thursday, April 17, 2014

The $50 million question -- April 17, 2014 column


One thing about billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg: He’s an optimist.

The former mayor of New York plans to drop a chunk of his own change -- $50 million -- this year to build a grassroots political organization aimed at reducing gun violence.

That’s a lot of money to most of us, but Bloomberg, whose wealth is calculated to be $31.2 billion, threw out the $50 million figure in an interview “as if he were describing the tip he left on a restaurant check,” The New York Times reported.

To put the sum into perspective, $50 million is less than the severance package the fired chief operating officer of Yahoo received. Henrique de Castro got $58 million after just 15 months on the job. Political groups run by the industrialist Koch brothers reportedly have spent $30 million in the last six months, backing Republican candidates for the Senate.
Can $50 million change the national political climate on guns? The answer is almost surely no, and Bloomberg must know that. He has already spent millions trying to persuade Congress to require background checks for gun purchases, to no avail.
A year ago, the Senate killed a bipartisan compromise amendment that would have required most buyers at gun shows and online to undergo criminal and mental background checks, but exempted sales or gifts to friends and family members. The vote was 54 to 46, but it needed 60 votes to beat a filibuster and advance. 

Polls showed a vast majority of Americans supported the measure, but the National Rifle Association fought for its defeat, claiming it would have “criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members” to obtain government approval. PolitiFact rated the claim Mostly False.

Polls still indicate broad support for background checks, and a few states have passed limited gun control measures.

So Bloomberg is trying a new approach with Everytown for Gun Safety, an umbrella group that covers two gun control groups he supports financially – Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America – with about 1.5 million members. The goal is 2.5 million members. 

With Congress unlikely to touch gun control this election year, Everytown hopes to mobilize women and mothers in state elections, using Mothers Against Drunk Driving as a model. Since it was founded in 1980, MADD has changed attitudes and prompted tighter laws against driving while impaired.

Everytown intends to push for expanded background checks, keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and other “gun sense” policies. It plans field staff in 15 states -- Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Bloomberg wants to challenge the clout of the N.R.A., which typically spends about $20 million a year on political activity. The N.R.A. has raised $13.7 million for the 2014 election cycle and has spent $241,000 targeting candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign expenditures.

Gun rights advocates dismissed Bloomberg’s announcement as more of the same. “He’s got the money to waste,” Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America and a former Virginia state legislator, told the 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.”

Katie Pavlich, news editor of Townhall, a conservative site, said in an interview with N.R.A. News that Everytown would target “ignorant, emotional women who don’t know much about the firearm industry.”

Bloomberg says this is a “battle for the hearts and minds of America.” Many politicians have tried, and failed, to defeat the N.R.A. Bloomberg, now a private citizen, is the first to put serious money into the effort. But even $50 million may be far from enough.   

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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