By Noah Bierman and John M. Glionna, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
When Michael R. Bloomberg last year pledged $50 million to take on the mighty NRA at its own game — using bare-knuckled politics to win over state legislatures and voters and make the pro-gun crowd “afraid of us” — he was talking about places like Maine.
The state’s small population is shifting from the rural northern woods to cities in the south, where residents tend to be more liberal and less likely to hunt. Traditional tools of influence — lobbyists, television ads, ballot initiatives — are relatively cheap there, making it a useful laboratory for bringing about Bloomberg’s vision of tougher gun laws.
There’s just this disarming distraction: the name Bloomberg itself.
The National Rifle Association and its allies have made the billionaire former mayor of New York, who has become one of the nation’s leading gun-control advocates, the poster boy of their own campaign, using Bloomberg’s big-city persona to rile conservatives who might otherwise be open to limited gun restrictions.
Pro-gun websites decry Bloomberg’s goal of imposing “New York-style gun controls throughout the land” through “his $50 million citizen disarmament machine.”
They also paint activists who promote gun restrictions as outsiders, determined to impose nanny-state values and to outlaw guns entirely. One pro-gun slogan reads: “Don’t NYC my gun rights.”
In Maine, the tactics seem to have worked.
Last month, a measure expanding gun rights took effect, making Maine the sixth state to let gun owners carry concealed weapons without a permit. The law took effect just weeks after another mass school shooting, in Oregon, that prompted another plea from President Barack Obama to re-examine the nation’s gun laws.
Maine’s politically divided Legislature passed the bill despite an onslaught of warnings from Bloomberg’s group — from top-flight lobbyists, automated phone calls, a sponsored public opinion poll and wall-to-wall Internet, radio, television and print ads — that the law would let “even violent criminals … carry hidden, loaded guns in public.”
“We don’t like the idea of people coming in here telling us what to do when they haven’t lived in Maine and they don’t know our culture,” said Maine Sen. Eric Brakey, a Republican who sponsored the concealed carry bill.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, suggested the results reflected Bloomberg’s reputation, saying he “already has a monkey on his back, or a stereotype.”
But the flashy former mayor isn’t giving up. Bloomberg has funded several groups devoted to expanding background checks for gun owners, restricting sales to lawbreakers and pushing back against NRA efforts to broaden gun rights.
With an intractable Congress, they say, it’s time to move on to the states, where the NRA has long used its membership rolls of 5.5 million and take-no-prisoners lobbying to wield tremendous political clout, even when public opinion favors tighter gun restrictions.
The key, Bloomberg has said, is to kidnap the NRA’s own credo: “If you don’t vote with us, we’re going to go after your kids and your grandkids and your great-grandkids. And we’re never going to stop,” he told The New York Times last year.
Since then, Bloomberg lowered his own profile on the issue, tamping down the fiery rhetoric and letting victims of gun violence and front-line advocates do the talking. He declined an interview request made through Everytown for Gun Safety, the umbrella group for a handful of gun organizations he has funded.
Both sides of the gun issue claim to be winning the hearts, minds and votes of Americans.
Despite its setback in Maine, Everytown claims victories: defeating 62 gun-lobby priority bills in state legislatures, lobbying 10 states that passed laws banning domestic abusers from owning guns, and successfully pushing background-check measures in Oregon and Washington state.
Yet many of their victories are either on defense against the NRA or incremental steps aimed at eventually altering the dynamics of the debate.
“This is about looking at the long game,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, one of three groups under the Everytown umbrella. “We’re not going to win every battle. The fact that we’ve won so many in such a short period of time is amazing.”
Watts’ organization, which started in 2012 as a Facebook group after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, says that combined with Everytown, it has more than 3 million supporters, including 54,000 in Maine. Her group’s ability to scrutinize lawmakers, start petition drives, force corporations to change their gun policies and advocate in former one-sided statehouse hearings has changed the terms of the gun debate, she said.
“We are now the emotional and political equivalent of the NRA,” she said. “Our moms are going toe to toe with them.”
The NRA has its own score card: Some 90 percent of NRA-backed candidates won office nationwide in 2014. This year, 33 states passed pro-gun and pro-hunting bills it backed, the group says.
It’s still not clear which side is spending more money in the cause.
Everytown would not disclose the percentage of its funds that come from Bloomberg, and it has not filed a nonprofit tax return since Bloomberg announced his $50 million expenditure in April 2014. The group would say only that it has 75,000 donors.
NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said that her group’s political action committee in 2014 raised $11.3 million and that the group had an additional $13 million of “issue advocacy” money at its disposal, some of that earmarked for salaries and overhead. The group claims nearly $350 million in overall revenue on its most recent tax return.
The NRA still has every reason to fear Bloomberg and his pocketbook, Baker said. “He’s an out-of-touch elitist who wants to tell people what they can drink and what kind of cars they can drive. As New York City mayor, he meddled in all kinds of personal decisions that should be left up to the individual,” she said.
“Still, he’s a billionaire who has said he wants to die with nothing,” she added. “His cause has a blank check. That $50 million he pledged a year ago was just a down payment.”
During Maine’s legislative fight this year, Everytown put police chiefs and victims on the front lines.
But they were met at the statehouse by gun groups who used their vast mailing lists to galvanize firearm owners, and the longtime relationships of their lobbyists to work legislators. Gun groups insisted the concealed carry law’s changes were marginal — it would merely allow residents to put a coat on while they were carrying an otherwise legal firearm.
Bloomberg-backed anti-gun activists are now gathering signatures in Maine for a ballot initiative there that would expand criminal background checks for gun sales, closing the so-called gun show loophole. Pro-gun groups, despite their recent victory on concealed carry, are worried about the effort.
“They’re picking off states one at a time with individual gun-control initiatives,” Trahan said. “Maine’s a cheap date. We only have a little over a million people.”
Another recent battleground has been Nevada.
In the Silver State, conservative state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore failed to win approval for a bill to allow people to carry guns on college campuses. Opponents also successfully placed on next year’s statewide ballot a measure to require more background checks on gun buyers.
She gives the Bloomberg camp no credit.
“Michael Bloomberg is calling the shots in Nevada? I’d almost find that funny if it wasn’t so serious,” she said.
Tick Segerblom, a Democratic Nevada state senator, said the state’s political gun wars have little to do with who is funding them.
“The problem the anti-gun people have is that the people they want to reach don’t turn up at the polls in nonpresidential years,” he said. “But that rural white guy who thinks that people are trying to take his gun out of his hands, he’ll vote in every election for sure.”
Gun control advocates don’t want the issue to be defined by personalities. But if a showdown takes place, they’ll back their man, the former mayor.
“Michael Bloomberg is a hero who is trying to save lives,” said Watts of Moms Demand Action. “The NRA is a lobbying organization that is trying to protect profits. I think they’re grasping at straws, and I think people see through that.”
Photo: Guns continue to be a political minefield in America. Emily Stanchfield/Flickr