Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control guy dreams of building a rival to the N.R.A., some day

Feinblatt, behind Ray Kelly and Bloomberg. (Spencer T Tucker, via nyc.gov)
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John Feinblatt, a 60-year-old West Village father of two, is that exceedingly rare gun-control advocate who feels that his side can play offense.

This may have something to do with the nature of his employment: He is Michael Bloomberg's chief policy adviser and he oversees Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition that, enabled by the mayor's money, continues to press a fight that the Democratic Party has long since abandoned. 

"They say that people like Obama are going to take your guns away," said Feinblatt, sitting in a cramped conference room on the first floor of City Hall in a dark suit, blue-striped shirt and complementary tie, referring to the mighty National Rifle Association.

"I mean, Obama has done nothing virtually to tamper or restrict gun rights. You could argue he's gone the other way. Guns in national parks. Guns on Amtrak. And yet the N.R.A. is still raising dollars off the concept that Obama is gonna take your guns away."

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Bloomberg and his coalition are hardly a counterweight to the national gun lobby, whose political strength is very well established. But it's not for lack of determination. 

With grim regularity, every time there is a particularly shocking act of gun violence in the news, there is the mayor, talking about lax interstate gun regulations and the lack of will in Washington to do anything about it.

After the Trayvon Martin shooting, Bloomberg said, "The gun lobby is writing our nation's gun laws."

After the shooting of four police officers in Sheepshead Bay this weekend, the mayor said police officers would continue to get shot with illegal guns "until those in Washington stop cowering before the gun lobby."

Bloomberg has become, as UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, the author of "Gunfight," put it, "enemy number one" for the gun lobby, and "the face of the gun-control movement."

Feinblatt, a solidly built man with a ruddy face whose wedding to the city's Consumer Affairs commissioner Jonathan Mintz was officiated by Bloomberg at Gracie Mansion, believes the mayor's advocacy, and the attendant pressure he and the coalition (with its $4 million budget) have been able to put on some officials, has been having an effect.

"We have to, as we have on certain issues, show that there's a cost to your vote," says Feinblatt.

On March 20, Senator John Thune of South Dakota introduced the "Respecting States' Rights and Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act," which would require states that allow some form of concealed gun permits to recognize the concealed-carry gun permits of other states, even when those states have significantly weaker gun-access laws. The legislation offers marginally more expansive concealed-carry rights than an otherwise quite similar bill introduced the week before by two Democratic senators, Mark Begich of Alaska and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a version of which has already passed the House.

Feinblatt says that, in good part thanks to his organization's lobbying efforts, neither bill will pass the Senate, and that, therefore, both are dead. (Last time Thune introduced such a measure, in 2010, it got 58 votes in the Senate, two short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster.)

According to Feinblatt, “moderate senators” have flipped on the issue since then, though he declined to say which ones.

“I think we have turned the tide on this issue in the Senate," he said.

Even if that's true, it would amount to a small victory in a larger war that the N.R.A. is indisputably winning and will likely continue to win for the foreseeable future.

"Gun-control groups, whether it’s the mayors group or Brady, those folks are playing defense, and they’re not playing very good defense right now," said Harry Wilson, a professor of political science at Virginia's Roanoke College, who has written extensively on gun control. "At this point in time, I would say the N.R.A. and gun-rights groups are winning. But that’s always open to change."

The N.R.A. has a lot going for it, including a tried-and-true communications and lobbying operation, and a well-organized, highly motivated membership that, in contrast to many Americans who support gun control, actually vote based on that issue.

Not even the Virginia Tech massacre or the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords did much to sway public opinion in any lasting way, or to change the basic dynamics of the political debate. So politically toxic is gun control understood to be that the Bloomberg-led coalition doesn't position itself as a gun-control group at all: it is very deliberately named Mayors Against Illegal Guns (as opposed to, say, "Mayors Against Guns"); it is a group that is against crime, not the rights of legal gun-owners, etc.

So, for example, they didn't oppose legislation that made guns legal on Amtrak and in public parks, but they do argue for a background-check system that will keep weapons away from people who probably shouldn't have them, like those on terrorist-watch lists or who have a record of mental illness.

But Feinblatt says that since its advent in 2006, Mayors Against Illegal Guns has won a number of affirmative victories. The mayor has helped get gun-control-friendly state senators elected in Virginia, where many of the illegal guns found used in New York City crimes originate. The organization has helped convince the nation's biggest gun retailer, Walmart, to commit to tightening its sales policies. It has employed Kroll to conduct stings in Ohio and Virginia to demonstrate how easy it is to buy guns there via sites like Craiglist and GunListings.com, even when the buyer admits he'd have difficulty passing a background check. The organization is now in talks with some of those website operators and Feinblatt says a deal is likely.

Again though, these are relatively modest achievements. 

"The battles that they're winning are very, very minor skirmishes," Wilson said.

This won't change until politicians believe the mayor's coalition, or someone, is in a position to make it worth their while—or survivable, even—to anger the N.R.A.

"Politicians believe that the N.R.A. is capable of moving an election, either toward them or against them," said Feinblatt.

They have their reasons.

In 1994, Republicans regained control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in nearly half a century, partly on the strength of a backlash against the prior year's passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, which mandated the creation of a national background-check system known as NICS

It has been basic, conventional wisdom roughly since then that Democrats in pro-gun parts of the country couldn't survive much longer if gun control remained an active issue.

“Because what you found was that people who were actually sympathetic to you were worried about jeopardizing Blue Dogs by taking votes on gun issues,” says Feinblatt, who’s worked on crime-related issues for decades. “And the myth sort of builds on the myth that builds on the myth that builds on the myth. And I don't think there's been a counterweight."

Al Gore's loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, often attributed in part to his record on guns, also had a chilling effect.

"Al Gore didn’t play his gun cards right on that one," said Wilson. "People still talk about Florida obviously, but those of us who focus more on gun control talk more about West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas, which are states that Gore lost and should not have lost. And a lot of people like me point to guns, not as the only reason, but one of the big reasons he lost those states."

There are also some very basic structural imbalances. The intensity in the debate would seem to fall mostly on the side of the N.R.A., as reflected in their more than 4 million paying members. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, by contrast, has a database that grew from 70,000 to more than 230,000 after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, and then to 340,000 after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The N.R.A.’s annual budget is $220 million, or about 55 times that of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

"The public sentiment isn’t there," said Wilson. "It’s not an issue that’s of paramount importance right now, and again, without perceptions that crime is a serious problem and that somehow controlling guns can aid in that, absent those two things, you’re really fighting upstream."

Even so, Feinblatt envisions a day when Mayors Against Illegal Guns will serve as counterweight against the N.R.A., a parallel organization of sorts. Feinblatt says the key to that ambition is demonstrating to legislators that the N.R.A. is not the only advocacy group capable of influencing public opinion.

"If you are for concealed-carry reciprocity, even though every D.A. in your state will say its bad, every police chief will say its bad, the citizens have a right to know that you're compromising public safety," he said.

By way of illustration, a spokesman for the mayor sent over some examples of the group's public lobbying efforts aimed at swingable officials, including a full-page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which 50 Ohio mayors implored then-senator George Voinovich to fight a provision very similar to the concealed-carry reciprocity now under consideration in Congress.

Voinovich subsequently voted against the amendment.

"So, they actually, they had not met their match before us," said Feinblatt, of the N.R.A.. "And I'm not saying we don't have a ways to go. We do."

Feinblatt predicts that the organization will only become stronger in 2014, once Bloomberg's third term ends and he has more time and energy to devote to an organization that has the full-time equivalent of about nine staff members.

"Look, I think  that the mayor feels very strongly about this issue," he said. "I have every expectation this is an issue that he will continue to work on and probably even with more jet propulsion, you could argue ... We always have to weigh lots of competing interests. He represents 8.4 million people and there are lots of issues that need to be attended to."

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