Early on a Friday morning last month, a deranged shooter walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and sprayed enough bullets to injure 58 people and murder 12. A few hours later, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was set to go on his weekly radio hour with 710 AM radio host John Gambling.
No sooner had the host, who has met with the mayor nearly every week at the same hour for the last decade, said “Good morning,” than Mr. Bloomberg, his voice trembling with anger, slammed the nation’s political culture for sitting by while the bodies piled up.
“You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country,” he inveighed.
Mr. Gambling suggested that perhaps now was not the time to be talking about gun control, with the nation mired in a political season and the candidates playing to caution.
“There’s something more important than getting elected, and that’s standing up and saying what you think is right. I mean, I listen to this all the time, everything—oh, it’s getting re-elected. Getting re-elected or elected isn’t everything…You’ve got to look your family in the eye, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and say, this is what I really believe, and this is what I’ll do if I get elected,” the mayor responded.
Before the extent of the carnage was even known, Mayor Bloomberg had appeared on the CBS Evening News that night, Face the Nation Sunday morning, Morning Joe on MSNBC on Monday morning and Piers Morgan Tonight on CNN that evening.
Every time, it was the same thing: slamming Mitt Romney and Barack Obama for their silence on the gun issue and calling on the rest of the nation to start demanding answers.
After nearly two weeks of silence from the candidates, and some public figures, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, even accusing the mayor of “trying to make a political issue” out of the shooting, Mr. Bloomberg granted an interview with The Huffington Post, a rarity.
There, he mocked elected officials for surrendering to the “aura” of the NRA, in which the gun lobby is seen as “so powerful, if you don’t go with them, they’ll take you out and destroy your ability to feed your family.”
And he told the website that he doesn’t really need to run for president to get his message out, since “Just remember that I can, anytime I want, talk to you, write an op-ed piece and do those kinds of things.”
Indeed he can. The hours after the Aurora massacre marked an unprecedented media blitz by Mayor Bloomberg, who has generally preferred to space out his national media appearances. His post-Aurora appearances were the latest tactic in Mayor Bloomberg’s six-year battle with the gun lobby—and they have helped shape the contours of a gun debate in advance of the November elections.
Mayor Bloomberg’s attention was first focused on guns by the scene that played out and over and over in his first term in office, in hospitals across the city, during the darkest hours of the night: a police officer had been shot somewhere in New York, and the mayor and the NYPD brass rush to the hospital. Crime had remained low, despite post 9/11 concerns that a faltering economy would lead to a spike. But still, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly remained bedeviled by a murder rate that seemed unable to fall below a certain threshold.
“It was intellectual, but it had a heart component to it that you don’t always see with Mike Bloomberg,” said John Feinblatt, who has served as the mayor’s Criminal Justice Coordinator throughout his tenure and as his chief policy director for the past term. “It’s the mayor who gets the real 3 am phone calls in the middle of the night and has to go to the emergency room and break the news that is going to break somebody’s heart.”
In 2003, two police officers were shot execution-style on Staten Island during an undercover operation to bust an illegal gun ring. At his second inaugural, in 2006, Mr. Bloomberg said, “Our most urgent challenge is ending the threat of guns and the violence they do,” and in a line that brought sustained cheers from the audience gathered on a cold January 1 at City Hall Plaza, “We will not rest until we secure all the tools we need to protect New Yorkers from the scourge of illegal guns.”
The mayor began by focusing his attention on the relatively easy task of tightening New York City’s gun laws, before turning to the slightly more difficult task of changing New York State’s laws, and finally the even-more-daunting mission of tightening gun laws nationwide.
A dozen or so of the nation’s mayors met at Gracie Mansion and formed “Mayors Against Illegal Guns”—backed by the mayor’s millions—to try to provide an alternative to the NRA. The group now boasts a membership of more than 700 mayors around the country, and has organizers working in Washington, D.C., and around the country (most often part-timers affiliated with an elected official who is part of the coalition.)
It has been slow going. Soon after the group formed, Mayor Bloomberg went down to Washington to try to persuade then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to repeal the Tiahrt Amendment, a budget rider that makes it harder for law enforcement to trace illegal guns. Ms. Pelosi rebuffed him, saying that the politics of guns were terrible for Democrats.
As a result, progress has been glacial ever since, with Congress declining to renew the assault weapons ban or to close gun show loopholes that allow non-dealers to sell guns without running background checks. The biggest anti-gun victory has been the defeat of a bill that would force states that forbid concealed-carry permits to honor those permits across state lines.
“There has been a political calculation that it is better to run for cover,” Mr. Feinblatt said. “Mike Bloomberg makes a different political calculation.”
Time was, after a horrific mass shooting, the nation would engage in a few moments of collective grief. After last year’s shooting in Tucson that injured Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the mayor addressed a church in Brooklyn, and over the next few days held a City Hall press conference with other members of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, calling for tougher background checks. A few weeks later, he joined Martin Luther King III and victims of gun violence in the City Hall rotunda to repeat the call.
Mostly, though, the messaging was done by the crew often called on after such tragedies: survivors, family members and pols like Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island congresswoman who ran for office after her husband was gunned down on the Long Island Railroad, and who has self-deprecatingly called herself “The Gun Lady” for the media’s propensity to drag her in front of the cameras every time there is a tragedy.
The mayor’s aides say that the his message has been consistent since he first started talking about guns, and it is only the media’s focus that has shifted.
“He talks about this stuff all the time,” said spokesman Marc LaVorgna. “The microscope is on the issue in a much bigger way during these instances. Look back at his remarks every single time there is a police officer shot, and every single time, he bangs Congress, he bangs the NRA, every time. These are being written at 3 am as we are sitting there in the hospital figuring out what we are going to say.”
Still, it is hard not to notice that there is a new urgency behind the mayor’s words, that he seems to be trying to make the fight against guns more visible.
“The fact is there is no one with any national stature talking about this,” said William Cunningham, who served as the mayor’s communications director during his first term. “Carolyn McCarthy has spent years talking about this, and no one pays attention. When Bloomberg talks, he has a big megaphone.”
Ms. McCarthy agrees.
“I work on gun violence constantly, but let’s face it, as this dies down, try to get on a TV show and talk about it, try to get on a radio show and talk about it. They are not interested anymore. He has the power to bring up the issue at any time,” she said. “He is speaking almost like a victim. He is speaking like a victim because he is the one that has to go the funerals and speak to the families.”
But the fact that he is not a victim changes the nature of the debate. When Ms. McCarthy—or anyone else who has been affected by gun violence more personally—goes to speak about the issue, the conversation can’t help but be shrouded in grief and tragedy. When the mayor speaks, it can’t help but be pointed and political, especially once he calls out politicians with specific criticism.
“I think one of our problems is that after a horrific shooting, everyone is very respectful and [thinks] there should be a moment of silence, but then that moment of silence should end,” said Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “Having a mayor stand up and say, ‘This is crazy!’ is, I think, good.”
It remains to be seen, however, how much this more-aggressive approach will move the needle. Experts in the politics of guns say that what really needs to occur is for a politician to stand up aggressively against the NRA and live to tell about it at election time.
“Memories of lost elections loom large,” said Kristen Goss, a professor of public policy at Duke and the author of Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America. “There is still a perception that Al Gore lost Tennessee in 2000 because of gun control. It’s gotten to the point where there are going to have to be some elections where people took risks in favor of gun control and survived.”
And if a spate of mass shootings hasn’t changed many minds about gun laws, it remains to be seen how much can be done by Mr. Bloomberg, who, despite his official status as an independent moderate, is still widely perceived as the billionaire from the big city.
“I live among a bunch of farmers, and he is perceived as a big enemy of the gun culture, a powerful person with his own agenda who is not to be trusted,” said Brian Anse Patrick, a professor at the University of Toledo and the author of The National Rifle Association and The Media. “Just the way the news works: when Mike Bloomberg appears you already know what he is going to say.”
Kirsten Sheffield, a Logan, Utah, a woman who survived the Columbine shooting as a teenager, finds the mayor’s media presence distasteful.
“I tend to disagree with him on a lot of politics, so I don’t pay that much attention to him. I don’t feel like he needs to get involved. For him to think he is the expert and knows the solution makes me think he is politicizing the violence.”