What will gun control mean in the 2013 mayor’s race?

A march against stop-and-frisk in June. (Michael Fleshman via Flickr)
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If it wasn't clear how the Democratic mayoral contenders felt about national gun control before the Sandy Hook massacre, it was perfectly clear afterward.

Christine Quinn said it was “an urgent reminder that we must strengthen the call for serious gun control reform;” Bill de Blasio said the shooting needed to be “a call to action;" Bill Thompson said it was “yet another reminder that there is no legitimate reason for anyone other than law enforcement or military personnel to have access to semi-automatic weapons.”

Meanwhile, the latest would-be Republican champion, freshly departed M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota, tipped his hand on gun control this weekend by retweeting a Daily News article from Harlem-based activist Geoffrey Canada calling for "reasonable gun control" measures in Congress and for national leaders to "stand up, finally, to the N.R.A."

In other words, they all agree with the course plotted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has used his bully pulpit and personal fortune to become, in essence, the face of the national gun-control movement. 

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Bloomberg's replacement won’t have a Bloombergian fortune at his or her disposal to amplify the message, but that won’t matter, at least according to Thompson.

“The New York City mayor off and on over a period of decades has been a spokesman for urban America, not just for guns, for mass transportation, housing,” he told me recently, adding, “I think that’s a role the mayor should play.”

But to the extent that gun control is up for debate in 2013, it's going to be at the local level, where the politics get complicated, and the arguments are about balancing civil rights, not gun rights, with concerns about public safety.

There's no dispute in New York City, practically speaking, about rules governing the purchase and use of legal guns. Bloomberg created new handgun restrictions in 2006 that none of the current candidates shows any sign of wanting to revisit after next year. 

But the city's street-level campaign to stem the proliferation of illegal guns is another thing entirely.

At issue is the police department's stop-and-frisk program, which targets mostly young, mostly black and Hispanic men, and has grown exponentially since Bloomberg took office. In 2011, police stopped and questioned people 684,330 times, a 600 percent increase over 2002, the mayor’s first year in City Hall.

The department has been notably successful at keeping crime rates low during that time, setting a high, politically mandatory bar for Bloomberg's successors. But stop-and-frisk, in isolation, is deeply unpopular among Democratic voters, particularly black and Hispanic Democrats.

Even though some of the foremost experts in urban crime-fighting say they don't know what part of that success is due to stop-and-frisk, or what would happen to the crime rate if the program were refined or scaled back, the mayor and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, say the tactic has been vital to controlling guns and gun violence.

“By making it ‘too hot to carry,’ the N.Y.P.D. is preventing guns from being carried on our streets,” said Bloomberg in June. “That is our real goal—preventing violence before it occurs, not responding to the victims after the fact.”

On this issue, the candidates diverge from Bloomberg, some more strongly than others.

Comptroller John Liu, who has been positioning himself as the farthest left of the candidates, has been the only one to call for the complete abolition of stop-and-frisk.

“Stop-and-frisk is racially biased, ineffective, and has created considerable costs for the city,” he wrote in June. “It has also damaged neighborhood-police relations in New York City's communities of color, where strong bonds are necessary to help combat crime. If we want to make our city safer, we must end stop-and-frisk.” 

De Blasio, Quinn and Thompson (and newly declared candidate Sal Albanese, for that matter) have relatively similar views on stop-and-frisk, representing a sort of compromise position: They think it's a valuable tool that the Bloomberg administation has overused, to the point where it has soured relations with the communities it's supposed to be protecting.

"I am concerned that a rift has developed between the police department and New Yorkers—particularly New Yorkers of color," Quinn wrote in an open letter to Kelly earlier this year. 

De Blasio has described stop-and-frisk as a medicine that works when it’s not overprescribed.

"Well, right now we're doing the fatal dose," de Blasio said in May, adding, "We are applying stop-and-frisk in such a fashion that it's actually counterproductive and it's hurting the most fundamental element of public safety, which is the ability of the community and the police to work together.”

Thompson recently told me that stop-and-frisk “is being misused and abused right now, by the police department, the commissioner and the mayor.”

Albanese, a former councilman, said it's a "necessary tool" that "needs to be reformed."

The only Democratic candidate to wholeheartedly approve of the Bloomberg’s use of stop-and-frisk isn't a Democrat anymore: Manhattan Media C.E.O. Tom Allon, who is now running as a Republican.

Lhota, who happens to be the son of a police officer, hasn't articulated a specific position yet on stop-and-frisk that I'm aware of. But for what it's worth he was a deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, which built its reputation on aggressive crimefighting and was considerably less inclined to brook dissent about the NYPD's methods, from minority leaders or anyone else, than the Bloomberg administration has been.