Bloomberg’s TV Blitz on Guns Puts Swing Senators on the Spot

The commercial, which will play in 13 states, makes no mention of an assault weapons ban once sought by the White House.


Published: March 23, 2013

The commercial is an unambiguous appeal to gun owners: a middle-aged hunter, rifle in hand, vows that he will fight to protect the Second Amendment. But in a sensible, father-of-the-house tone, he also urges voters to support comprehensive background checks, “so criminals and the dangerously mentally ill can’t buy guns.”

Andrew Gombert/European Pressphoto Agency

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

The man behind the advertisement is not known for his kinship with the gun crowd: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the nation’s fiercest advocate of restrictions on firearms since the December rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Determined to persuade Congress to act in response to that shooting, Mr. Bloomberg on Monday will begin bankrolling a $12 million national advertising campaign that focuses on senators who he believes might be persuaded to support a pending package of federal regulations to curb gun violence. The ads, in 13 states, will blanket those senators’ districts during an Easter Congressional recess that is to be followed by debate over the legislation.

In a telling sign of how much the white-hot demands for gun control have been tempered by political reality, Mr. Bloomberg’s commercials make no mention of an assault weapons ban once sought by the White House and its allies, instead focusing on the more achievable goal of universal background checks.

“You don’t want to lose everything in the interest of getting the perfect,” Mr. Bloomberg said in an interview, acknowledging his disappointment over the apparent unlikelihood of an assault weapons ban, but insisting he is resolved to push the legislation through at a time when its prospects are uncertain.

The mayor’s advertising blitz, which will saturate television screens in states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona, represents by far the biggest escalation of Mr. Bloomberg’s attempts to become a one-man counterweight to the National Rifle Association in the political clash over guns.

“The N.R.A. has just had this field to itself,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It’s the only one that’s been speaking out. It’s time for another voice.”

After months of wrangling, the current package of Senate legislation would expand background checks for gun buyers, increase penalties for people who buy firearms for those barred from owning them and would give law enforcement new tools to combat illegal gun trafficking, a longtime goal of Mr. Bloomberg’s.

Given the mayor’s role in contributing to the ouster of an N.R.A.-backed candidate in an Illinois Congressional race a few weeks ago, his push carries an unmistakable threat to those who vote against the bills.

The ads are directed at Democratic and Republican senators in both swing states and partisan precincts. Among Mr. Bloomberg’s targets are some of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats, including Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, for whom the gun issue is particularly problematic because they will need Republican votes to win re-election.

Some of the senators, such as Dean Heller of Nevada, Rob Portman of Ohio and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, all Republicans, represent swing states where voters are divided over guns. Other Republicans would seem to be out of reach for Mr. Bloomberg: Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Daniel Coats of Indiana and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

In each case, the commercials urge support for the measure requiring background checks for nearly all firearms purchases, not just those in gun stores, the most debated element of the legislation and a coveted goal of gun control advocates.

Mr. Bloomberg has singled out Mr. Flake, who already voted against the expansion of background checks in the Senate Judiciary Committee, by producing a special, scolding commercial aimed at Arizona. “Flake’s vote,” the ad declares, equals “no background checks for dangerous criminals.”

The mayor, who has spent tens of millions of dollars to support his favored candidates, intends to wield his “super PAC” to influence the midterm Congressional elections next year and beyond. He said he would prefer “candidates who will stop people from getting killed.”

“There is an easy measure of how you decide who those are,” he said, noting that gun rights groups rate lawmakers. “The N.R.A. keeps score of it for you. They are public information.”

To those who might fear his financial might, he added: “If they pass sensible gun legislation, there is not an issue and I don’t have to spend a dime.”

The N.R.A. plans to roll out its own lobbying campaign, using print and broadcast advertising to reach lawmakers during the recess. But its leaders said that their investment was unlikely to rival the intensity of Mr. Bloomberg’s spending, to be carried out through Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group he co-founded.

“Can we match Mayor Bloomberg dollar for dollar?” asked Chris W. Cox, the group’s chief lobbyist. “No one can. We don’t have to.”

He predicted that voters and senators would resist a message from an out-of-state magnate who is associated with government limits on soda and salt.

“What he is going to find out is that Americans don’t want to be told by some elitist billionaire what they can eat, drink and they damn well don’t want to be told how, when and where they can protect their families,” Mr. Cox said.

Thomas E. Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, agreed that Mr. Bloomberg “is not popular in many of the states he is going into right now.”

He said that $12 million in advertising was unlikely to influence the outcome of the legislation unless lawmakers were convinced that Mr. Bloomberg would open his wallet again after the vote — both to reward those who supported the bill and to punish those who did not. “That is absolutely key,” Mr. Mann said.

Mr. Flake, for example, was just elected and will not face voters again until 2018.

For those like Mr. Bloomberg, who believed the shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a turning point in the gun debate, it is a somewhat humbling moment. President Obama has called for bold action, and former Representative Gabrielle Giffords has lent her personal story to the cause.

Still, what they are now fighting for is, by the admission of gun control advocates, a diminished version of what they wanted — and even that is proving a tough sell.

“These ideas shouldn’t be controversial,” the president said in his radio address on Saturday.

Mr. Bloomberg lamented that “sausage and the law aren’t pretty the way they are made.”

But he is eager to seize what he can. “I think you’ve got as good a chance as we’ve ever had,” the mayor said.

Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.


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