Aside from the cowardice of some lawmakers, a major obstacle to passing federal firearms legislation is that sparsely populated, gun-friendly states have the same representation in the Senate as populous, more gun-safety-minded ones. That amplifies the voices of groups such as the NRA that leverage their power to silence the majority of Americans who support universal background checks for gun purchases.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned that lesson the hard way last year when he spent $12 million on political ads in 13 states in hopes of pressuring senators to vote for gun safety legislation. Now he’s opening his checkbook again, but with a smarter strategy, announcing a $50-million investment this year to develop a nationwide network of “gun sense”-minded voters and lawmakers, focusing on 15 states across the political spectrum.
Even gun safety advocates have expressed some skepticism, which is understandable. It’s been a demoralizing year since President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden on “a pretty shameful day for Washington” when the Senate failed to pass even moderate gun safety legislation. If a shooting that leaves 20 elementary school students and six adults dead can’t spur consensus around gun policy, what’s it going to take?
Yet if you were disappointed by the lack of federal action, consider that in the year after the Newtown, Conn., shootings, 70 state laws loosened gun restrictions while only 39 tightened them. That’s why Bloomberg is hoping to turn the tide by using some of the NRA’s own tactics in a field it has traditionally dominated: state politics.
“This is not a battle of dollars,” Bloomberg said during an appearance on the “Today” show this week. “This is a battle for the hearts and minds of America, so that we can protect our children, protect innocent people.”
Bloomberg knows as well as anyone that winning hearts and minds costs money, and he’s betting that he’ll get more bang for his buck at the state-level. By strategically investing in the gun safety ground game, he could force the NRA and other groups to spread their resources and engage where they haven’t needed to before. It’s not an overnight solution, but it’s better than counting on the Senate to get anything done.
Many pundits argue that no amount of money can close the “passion gap” on the issue, suggesting that gun owners are simply more likely to cast votes based on firearms issues. Others worry that Bloomberg’s willingness to be the public face of the cause will only fuel the NRA’s fundraising efforts, especially in rural and Southern states where he is seen as an elitist, soda-banning billionaire, a prime enemy in the conservative “culture war” alongside Obama.
At this stage of the game, though, gun safety advocates can’t afford to be picky about who speaks up for common-sense gun laws. Bloomberg may not be the ideal spokesperson, but consider the success the NRA has had over the years with folks like Charlton Heston and Wayne LaPierre speaking on behalf of the organization.
At a time when too many people have given up hope that progress is possible, we should be grateful that anyone is willing to jump-start the conversation and provide outlets for people to take action instead of staring numbly at television coverage of the next mass shooting.
Chris Feliciano Arnold is a recipient of a 2014 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. He has written essays and journalism for the Atlantic, Salon, the Millions, the Rumpus and Los Angeles Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter @chrisarnold.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times