Why Michael Bloomberg doesn’t talk about ‘gun control’ anymore

Bloomberg on Morning Joe. (via MSNBC)
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In the weeks following the Aurora shooting massacre, Michael Bloomberg, the contemporary face of the gun control movement, appeared on one national TV show after another denouncing the political cowardice of the nation's leaders and the weak gun regulations resulting from it.

At the same time, the mayor has said that he is actually not a “gun control” advocate.

“To those that say, ‘Look, this is about gun control,’ it isn’t,” Mr. Bloomberg said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" recently. “It’s about crime control.”

(The producers at "Morning Joe," apparently oblivious to that fine distinction, complemented the segment with a slug at the bottom of the frame that read, “Gun control debate,” illustrated with an assault rifle crossing an American flag.)

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And yesterday, the Times quoted John Feinblatt, the mayor’s chief policy adviser, saying, ''We're about crime control. We're not about gun control.”

So what's the difference, precisely? 

"In fact, we've made this distinction since the mayor started his efforts," Feinblatt told Capital on Wednesday. "And I think really what it boils down to is that what we're focused on is the person, not the gun. You know, our problem in this city and our problem across the country is not the problem of legal guns. It's the problem of when criminals or the mentally ill or drug addicts get guns ... When you have a 14-year-old who's shot in the Bronx or a three-year-old shot in Brooklyn, it's never with a legal gun."

So Mayors Against Illegal Guns does not want to be seen engaging in an argument about the right to own guns, but rather on the things that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and mentally ill people by strengthening the nation's porous background-check system and closing the gun-show and private-sale loopholes, which allow weapons to be sold without background checks.

"And I think what has always differentiated us from some of the gun control groups, is we've never made the Second Amendment the issue," said Feinblatt.

But what about the mayor's support for a new federal assault weapon ban? Doesn't that constitute a gun control? And don't all participants in the debate over guns claim to respect the Second Amendment, taking issue simply with the National Rifle Associations modern-day interpretation of it?

"I think why the mayor has said that he supports the assault-weapons ban is that there just is no legitimate purpose for owning an assault rifle, other than to kill somebody," said Feinblatt.

Pro-gun-control politicians have considered the phrase "gun control" politically toxic since at least 1994, when the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in decades, helped by what seemed to be a backlash against the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, which mandated the creation of a national background check system.

Al Gore's loss to George W. Bush in 2000, too, was attributed partly to his gun control agenda. It was a basic premise of Howard Dean's liberal-truth-to-power presidential campaign in 2004 that his party needed to get out of the business of gun legislation entirely if it was ever again to win a national election. Barack Obama largely steered clear of the issue when he won in 2008.

Despite Columbine, Virginia Tech, Oikos, Gabbie Giffords, and now, Aurora, gun control continues to poll poorly, with the Pew Research Center recently reporting that support for efforts to “control gun ownership” remains essentially unchanged, pre- and post-Aurora.

There was a time, long after most liberals stopped using the phrase, that Bloomberg himself refused to shy away from it. 

In 2005, introducing a new package of legislation, for example: “The next four bills before me all relate to the issue of gun control,” Bloomberg said, in his prepared remarks. “Gun control is a vital part of our continuing battle against crime.”

(Marc LaVorgna, the mayor's spokesman, said in response, "It does use the phrase, but the description of the bill is exactly in line with where we are today: 'four pieces of legislation that will make it harder for guns to fall into the hands of criminals.'")

The year after he hailed his "gun control" measures, Bloomberg co-founded an organization called Mayors Against Illegal Guns, whose very name presaged the politically modulated rhetoric that was to come.

It was not, after all, “Mayors Against Guns,” or "Mayors Against Hand Guns.” Its focus was on “illegality” and, by extension, crime.

By September 2010, the mayor was aggressively making the not-gun-control argument.

“'There are 12,000 gun murders a year in our country, and this report makes it perfectly clear how common-sense trafficking laws can prevent many of them,'' Bloomberg told the Times. ''For mayors around the country, this isn't about gun control. It's about crime control.''

So actually, as his spokesman contends, the mayor has been consistent on the substance; it's the words that have changed, for whatever that's worth.

"Many in the 'gun control' community prefer to avoid that term," said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, in an email. "Gun control is politically loaded and, these days, politically toxic. But who is being fooled? No strong supporter of gun rights is going to vote for candidates who promote gun control under a different guise."

“I think if you look at the mayor’s actual proposals and then contrast that with the labels, certainly he’s a fairly staunch gun control advocate,” agreed Nicholas Johnson, a Fordham University law professor who’s written extensively about the Second Amendment, adding, “Saying your interest is something else, even though your programs are quite clearly in the traditional gun control vein, muddies the water."