Introducing sanity into the national debate over gun control is too big a job for any one person. We as a society have too much ground to make up, too many tragedies to rectify, too many loopholes to close. It is beyond the capacity of a single individual, even a president of the United States, to repair the damage caused by so-called “gun enthusiasts” and the zealots who run the National Rifle Association.
That said, an opportunity awaits Michael Bloomberg as he transitions from his 12 years as mayor to the next stage of his life. Long before those innocent children in Newtown were slaughtered, Mr. Bloomberg was the nation’s most passionate advocate of sensible and effective gun control. Now, as he enters his final year in City Hall, he clearly has an opportunity—he has the time and the resources—to help change the national conversation on guns.
And, to be sure, he has the temperament and the intelligence to shame those who still insist, even after Newtown, even after Aurora, even after Virginia Tech, that the government has no right to come between an American citizen and the assault rifle of his or her choice.
On Meet the Press this week, the mayor was gloriously impatient with all the talk about more talk about possibly doing something about guns. He has heard it all before. He wants action, and he made it clear that he will do what he can to transform words into legislation.
The mayor spared nobody in his interview with the show’s host, but he focused particular attention on President Obama, whom he supported for re-election. “The president campaigned in ’08 on an assault weapons ban,” Mr. Bloomberg noted. “And the only gun legislation that the president has signed since then … is the right to carry a gun in national parks where our kids play and … the right to carry guns on Amtrak. I assume that’s to stop the rash of train robberies, which stopped back in the 1800s. And this is ridiculous.”
And so it is. But even today, as children are being buried in Newtown, there are so very few politicians willing to speak with this sort of simmering outrage, this sort of contempt for those who would prevaricate, those who would poll first and take positions later, those who see injustice but are not moved to action.
During the recent presidential campaign, neither candidate talked much about guns, no doubt out of fear of offending the fanatics who control the NRA and other pro-gun groups. (Mr. Obama did say he would support a new assault weapons ban. Mr. Romney was silent on the issue.) The NRA’s political clout has cowed more than a few well-intentioned politicians since the 1960s. When Congress passed a ban on assault weapons in 1994, the NRA reacted with overwhelming force. It predicted that jackbooted federal agents would soon be smashing through doors and confiscating hunting rifles and lowly handguns.
Instead, Democrats and Republicans alike chose to allow the assault weapons ban to expire in 2004. Neither party wished to take on the NRA.
But Mayor Bloomberg has done so. Repeatedly. He has made himself the NRA’s least-favorite politician, and one pro-gun advocate called him “America’s most dangerous mayor.” Those words surely are a badge of honor. Mr. Bloomberg has organized hundreds of his fellow mayors to lobby for greater enforcement of gun regulations. He has sued gun dealers who sold weapons that wound up on the streets of New York. The NRA fulminated against what it called a campaign of “slander” against legitimate, respectable gun dealers. Former Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, a member of the NRA, came to the dealers’ defense, assailing the mayor and promising to “finish” the fight “and win.”
How is that working out, Mr. Barr?
During the most recent election cycle, Mr. Bloomberg’s super PAC, Independence USA, helped to fund several congressional candidates who supported tighter gun restrictions or strict enforcement of laws already on the books. The NRA blustered that the mayor cared more about forcing gun laws on unsuspecting citizens than he did about helping the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Talk about slander.
Four of the seven candidates Mr. Bloomberg supported won their races—proof, the mayor said, that the NRA’s power is overrated. The most conspicuous victory took place in a southern California congressional contest, in which gun-loving incumbent Joe Baca, a Democrat, was ousted thanks largely to the $3 million that Mr. Bloomberg’s super PAC pumped into the race. Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson summed up Mr. Baca’s loss with words that mean more today than they did even a month ago: “You can lose your seat by voting against prudent gun legislation,” he said. “Hopefully, members will think twice before taking these votes. They can’t just vote the NRA’s way and assume they won’t hear about it.”
The slaughter in Newtown appears to have changed the conversation about guns. Even reliable NRA supporters in Congress are wavering on the lobby’s fundamentalist approach to the Second Amendment. There certainly will be renewed support for a comprehensive and effective assault weapons ban, so that the Bushmaster rifle that Adam Lanza turned on 6-year-olds will no longer be available to civilian gun enthusiasts.
The question, really, is whether Congress and the president will do enough. Will Washington close loopholes, as Mayor Bloomberg is demanding, so that background checks are required of those who purchase weapons—lots and lots of weapons—at gun shows? Will the government provide resources so that background databases are kept up to date? Does Congress have the will to ban gun magazines that allow shooters to fire off hundreds of rounds?
Sadly, nobody can say with any real confidence that Washington will do whatever it takes to prevent another slaughter. It is quite feasible—in fact, it’s highly likely—that Washington will consider passage of a new assault weapons ban as a milestone achievement, as proof that politicians have heard the cries of the innocent and the grieving and have taken appropriate action.
And that is precisely why Michael Bloomberg’s voice, passion and resources are required in this desperate campaign to save lives and restore sanity to our civic life. An assault weapons ban is not enough. In fact, it is evidence of just how far removed we are as a society from simple common sense.
An assault weapons ban cannot be the end of the conversation. It must be the beginning. But the conversation is destined to be short-lived unless there are people willing to devote time, energy and—especially—resources to counter the zealots on the other side.
Michael Bloomberg certainly cannot do it by himself. But, as soon-to-be-former Congressman Baca can attest, the mayor and his allies are capable of effective political action, the sort of political action that puts fear in politicians’ hearts. And that’s one way to continue the conversation about gun control.
In the end, of course, the renewed push to change our attitudes and laws is attributable not to any one politician or any one law. The change has come about because 20 children in Newtown are dead.
We must not forget that.