Michael R. Bloomberg recently announced he would be writing a check to support a grass-roots get-out-the-vote effort to counteract the National Rifle Association. This is hardly a shock, as Bloomberg has supported the fight against gun violence before, but the amount involved was eye-opening — $50 million.
This invites two initial realizations. First, that one of the nation’s richest men can casually write a check the size of a lotto jackpot as others might pluck a few cans for the neighborhood food drive, and second, that we live in an age of dueling oligarchs (take that, Koch brothers). The latter is made all the more pronounced by rising income inequality and Supreme Court rulings that have unfastened political spending by the rich from its modest legal tethers. It’s hard to see all that as good for democracy. Nonetheless, we can’t help but admire this foray from the former New York mayor and Johns Hopkins University mega-benefactor as a rare instance in which the big money is on the side of the public in a fight against a special interest, rather than the other way around.
There can be little doubt that the overwhelming majority of the public wants sensible gun control measures such as background checks that prevent gun sales to criminals, straw purchasers and the dangerously mentally ill. Even most NRA members will privately admit to supporting that. The problem is that NRA leadership has become so adept at stirring gun owners into a state of frenzy that they can easily target incumbent politicians with single-issue politics. An NRA endorsement is widely viewed as a game-changer, particularly in conservative districts and in Republican primaries, and its power remains substantial, even post-Sandy Hook.
Let’s face it, for all the public upset over shootings — in schools, theaters, college campuses, military bases or wherever — the NRA is not exactly on the run as a political force in this country. They’ve beaten back reforms as modest as expanded background checks at the national level, losing only in a handful of states like Maryland and Colorado. Bloomberg may outspend the NRA, which devotes about $20 million annually to political activities, but he still hasn’t leveled the playing field. The organization has too much political clout, and its supporters are too devoted to the cause to think that the mere act of writing a big check — whether it pays for TV commercials or political field operations of his new umbrella group, Everytown for Gun Safety — can fully offset that advantage.
One can almost anticipate the NRA fundraising letter to come: Give now or lose your Second Amendment rights to Billionaire Bloomberg! Help us raise $50 million and show the anti-gun billionaire that he can’t take away our firearms! Add references to Mr. Bloomberg’s past efforts as New York’s mayor to regulate sodas and discourage smoking and toss in a mention of President Barack Obama, the liberal media and “gun grabbers,” and you have yourself a direct mail campaign.
Yet it’s also clear that the NRA isn’t invincible. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe stood by his support of universal background checks (and his “F” rating from the NRA) when he ran and won last year. The gubernatorial race was ugly and expensive, but the NRA still lost.
Whether that was an aberration or not, there is an expectation that a pro-reform agenda can win over female voters, an important swing group in recent elections. Polls show that public support for background checks on all gun purchases still hovers in the neighborhood of 90 percent. How long can the will of so many Americans be thwarted?
Still, it’s a bit disconcerting that the issue requires a “sugar daddy” to counteract the NRA. Is this the future of American politics? Instead of Democrats and Republicans or even conservatives versus liberals, will it come down to what serves the interests of the Kochs or some hedge fund owner stacked up against Bloomberg or George Soros? Forget the politics of gun control, the emergence of the super-donor should motivate the American electorate, too, if only to fret about the future of representative democracy.
Surely, the nation’s founders weren’t anticipating a time when billionaires would shake the political firmament like a thundering herd of Jurassic sauropods leaving us furry mammals to scurry in their wake. Today, Mr. Bloomberg is acting benevolently, at least in our view, on behalf of the thousands of victims of gun violence, their family and friends, but what about tomorrow?
This editorial appeared recently in The Baltimore Sun.