NRA vs. Michael Bloomberg Smackdown!
The former New York City mayor is dedicating himself to a new group that will organize voters who support gun control; called Everytown for Gun Safety, it will subsume his existing groups (Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense), and it will focus specifically on expanding background checks. His previous approach was to fund ad campaigns in races where gun control was an issue.
Here's how he matches up with his arch-rival.
Bloomberg says he'll be putting at least $50 million into the project this year -- and according to the New York Times, he said this "as if he were describing the tip he left on a restaurant check." He continued: "Certainly a number like that, $50 million. Let's see what happens."
According to the NRA's 2011 990 form, it pulled in more than $240 million that year, but it's difficult to say how much of that money Bloomberg will be fighting against, because the NRA isn't solely dedicated to political activism and not all of its political activism is dedicated to gun rights. (It also involves itself in hunting rights, free speech, etc.)
Only $17 million was spent through the Institute for Legislative Action, the arm of the organization dedicated exclusively to politics, and another $33.5 million was spent on publications, which include legislation-related articles but also hunting tips and whatnot. (Members choose one of three magazine subcriptions; about half a million go with America's 1st Freedom, which focuses on gun rights, while 2 million go with the more general guns-and-shooting magazine American Rifleman. The group's hunting magazine claims a million readers as well.)
Looking specifically at political donations and lobbying, the NRA ranks a mere 53rd among interest groups -- its total since 1989 is a modest $20 million, and recently it has typically spent less than $3 million a year. The list, provided by OpenSecrets, does not include individuals, and it's possible for a very wealthy individual to match the efforts of entire organizations. As OpenSecrets notes, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife spent enough in 2012 alone to put them at No. 2: almost $93 million.
Public Opinion and Clout
Gun-rights supporters have chalked up some real victories in recent years. Not only did the Supreme Court rule that broad gun bans are unconstitutional, but the percentage of the population that supports banning handguns has reached record lows.
And the NRA's clout tends to far exceed its spending. It boasts millions of members, and the common perception is that gun owners are far more likely to base votes on the issue than are gun-control supporters. One study found that an NRA endorsement can boost a candidate's vote share by 3 percent for every 10,000 members in the district. Bloomberg's most recent push for background checks lost to a filibuster in the Senate.
But none of that means Bloomberg is wasting his money, especially since he won't be aiming for gun bans. Numerous gun-control measures still command majority support, most notably the universal background checks Bloomberg wants, but also, at least in some polls, assault weapon bans and limits on magazine size. And Bloomberg's groups already claim 1.5 million supporters of their own, though that just means people signed an online pledge.
Further, the political dedication of gun owners might be overstated. In one poll, gun-owning and non-gun-owning households were equally likely to say they couldn't vote for someone who disagreed with them on the issue.
The NRA is regarded, quite correctly, as a powerful political force. But it's not unthinkable that a well-orchestrated campaign for a popular position could make some real gains. For his part, Bloomberg is confident in his ability to connect with voters outside of New York. From the Times:
"I don’t know what your perception is of our reputation, and mine, the name Bloomberg around the country," he said, explaining that everyplace he goes, he hears, "You’re a rock star. People yelling out of cabs, 'Hey, way to go!'" They're not booing, they're saying, "Blooo-mberg."
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen