The movement to build a serious, long-term political infrastructure to challenge the National Rifle Association got a boost this week when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged hundreds of top New York donors to stop contributing to any Democrat who votes the wrong way on guns — angering Democratic leaders.
Bloomberg’s letter singled out four Senate Democrats who voted against the failed Manchin-Toomey compromise on background checks: Mark Pryor, Heidi Heitkamp, Mark Begich and Max Baucus. He noted: “Polls consistently show that 90(percent) of Americans — including 82(percent) of gun owners and 74(percent) of NRA members — support requiring background checks for all gun sales. . . . [U]ntil they show they will stop bowing to pressure from the gun lobby, you should not support them.”
Senate Democratic leaders and operatives were outraged by Bloomberg’s letter, with The New York Times reporting that Majority Leader Harry Reid told the mayor that his targeting of Democrats could result in Mitch McConnell becoming majority leader and further set back the cause of gun control.
But to the Bloomberg-led operation Mayors Against Illegal Guns and others trying to build a lasting movement for gun control, such considerations are beside the point. To them, this battle could take years and will require a major shift in Democratic thinking about gun politics. As Bloomberg adviser Howard Wolfson told me recently, gun control will not pass the Senate until most or all red-state Democrats support it, and that won’t happen until they decide that voting against gun control will cost them more than voting for it will.
Some say that even if background checks are overwhelmingly popular in polls, that doesn’t account for how vulnerable red-state Democrats make themselves by voting for measures that can be caricatured as “anti-Second Amendment.” (Note that two red-state Democrats up for reelection in 2014, Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan, voted for Manchin-Toomey.) Some also say that voting against gun control is a way for Democrats to signal cultural affinity with red-state voters.
But supporters of gun-control reform increasingly believe that these assumptions are mistaken and that Democrats must come to understand that this fight can be won. Democrats can explain a vote for expanding background checks to red-state voters, they say, even to those inclined to be “pro-gun,” and can win despite targeted NRA propaganda. They also believe that voters are less conservative on gun issues than is assumed.
The counterargument, of course, is that a better route to success would be to sway more blue-state Republicans. Increasing the Democrats’ Senate majority, and perhaps filibuster reform, might also be more effective means to the desired end. At any rate, Bloomberg has forced more debate.
Greg Sargent is a writer for The Washington Post.