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Bloomberg, Giffords team up to take on NRA in gun control debate

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

A month after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, a once-moribund gun-control movement this week unleashed a broad, coordinated campaign aimed at curbing America's fascination with high-powered firearms by, in part, blunting the tip of the gun lobby's spear: the National Rifle Association.

Heeding President Obama's call for swift action after 20-year-old Adam Lanza used an assault-style rifle to kill 20 grade school children and six staffers in Connecticut, a sort of dream team of gun-control advocates has in effect launched a multipronged attack that could change national sentiment about gun control, in part by catching the NRA at a time when its political influence is low, say political scientists and gun policy experts.

In Washington, Vice President Joe Biden is meeting this week with various constituencies, including the NRA and Hollywood producers, as part of a presidential task force, even as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns went public with a new national ad featuring the mother of a child slain during the 2010 attempted assassination of former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona.

On Tuesday, Ms. Giffords, a Second Amendment supporter, launched her own political-action committee aimed at raising money to combat the NRA's political influence. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), meanwhile, worked to push through new gun restrictions after noting that "guns have both a noble and tragic tradition in America and in New York State."

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama himself hinted that he may take some kind of "executive action" against gun violence, though experts note that any major initiatives must come through Congress.

"I think there's a large wave [of gun-control advocacy] building, and I think the White House is trying to have it all sort of come in the same direction," says Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York in Cortland and the author of "The Politics of Gun Control." "You have the Bloomberg people, the Brady people, now Giffords, and there's a sense among the political leadership in Washington that they have a moment to really get stuff done and to bring all these groups to bear in a consistent way. This is not a normal moment; it's not normal politics."

The emergence of Mr. Bloomberg, a former Republican, as well as Giffords, a centrist Democrat who owns weapons for self-protection, and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, not only gives gun-control advocates recognizable and heroic faces, but it also is beginning to coalesce a largely fractious movement that has had only a lean grass-roots constituency.

"One of the things that the gun-control movement has always faced is an abundance of underfunded groups that don't work together well," says Kristin Goss, a political scientist at Duke University and author of "Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America." That, she says, may now be changing.

Bloomberg and Giffords also help to change the image of the gun-control movement from one of "gun grabbers" to one of centrist Americans simply looking for common-sense change, perhaps in the form of an assault weapons ban, bans on large ammunition clips, or the creation of a national gun registry.

Giffords not only has cachet as a Second Amendment-supporting gun victim, but she and Mr. Kelly hope to raise as much as $20 million to help fund political candidates willing to support some gun-control measures in congressional districts where the NRA has been prominent. The effort also appears aimed at helping to sustain momentum for proposals already in Congress and those that will emerge next Tuesday from Vice President Biden's working group on gun violence.

"I can't imagine a better team," writes novelist Douglas Anthony Cooper in a Huffington Post op-ed Wednesday titled "Now We Know Who's Going to Take Down the NRA." Bloomberg alone has "singlehandedly demonstrated that the NRA can indeed be conquered in the manner proposed: by doing precisely what [NRA chief lobbyist Wayne] LaPierre's militia does, with comparable funding, and – here's the crucial difference – principles."

The NRA isn't going quietly into the night, of course. Two reasons it remains a powerful lobby: a $300 million annual budget and a huge, active grass-roots constituency capable of influencing local, state, and national political races. Indeed, 100,000 people have joined the NRA in the past 18 days, the group reports. And while polls show an uptick in public backing for more gun restrictions in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, support also remains strong for gun rights enshrined in the Second Amendment and recently affirmed by the US Supreme Court.

Gun-control advocates have in recent years acknowledged that the NRA has largely prevailed in the cultural debate over guns, exemplified by a big increase in the number of concealed-weapons carriers and the proliferation of self-defense "Stand Your Ground" laws (though the latter have become more controversial since the shooting last year of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.).

Responding to Governor Cuomo's suggestion that other states are likely to follow New York's lead on tighter gun restrictions, NRA President David Keene on Wednesday told the Brooklyn GOP Radio podcast that "I was amazed he said other states will follow New York. They haven't done that in the past. New York already has very tough gun laws, as you well know. Much of what the governor proposed, in terms of so-called assault weapons and the like, isn't going to make any difference one way or another in terms of violence of any kind in the state."

Recently, however, the NRA has done itself no favors by its answer to the Sandy Hook slaughter, with Mr. LaPierre railing against a coarsening culture and calling for a better mental health registry and for stationing armed guards at all US schools to better protect them. Critics characterized his unrelenting resistance to any new controls on guns as out of touch and insensitive.

"While I don't think it's likely that there will be major change [in gun laws], the door is now open," says Mr. Spitzer at SUNY-Cortland. "The main reason why is because the NRA and its influence is at a low point at the same time when public attention on [the gun issue] is at its high point, so there's an inverse relationship between the NRA's political influence and the degree to which the gun issue is in front of the American public. The Connecticut shootings shocked, outraged, and mobilized the public and riveted the public's attention in a way we've just not seen with past mass shootings."

It remains to be seen what proposals will win favor, but some political scientists suggest that banner issues, such as a ban on assault-style weapons, might fade in favor of mundane, but perhaps more effective, efforts such as shoring up mental health records, which Obama may be able to accomplish with executive powers.

While many gun enthusiasts deride Obama for his past support for an assault weapons ban, experts say the president is keenly aware that this is a unique moment in America's gun debate and an opportunity for those who hope to see fewer guns in fewer hands. Hence, says Spitzer, Obama will probably address ways to reduce gun violence in both his Jan. 21 inaugural address and his forthcoming State of the Union address, and work to build momentum for the Biden proposals.

Meanwhile, Giffords, Bloomberg, Cuomo, and a handful of other high-profile figures are expected to ramp up a well-funded ground campaign to try to challenge the NRA and its opposition to any kind of gun control.

"If they continue to make it a priority, it could succeed," says Spitzer.