Bloomberg defends the background-check deal, and dismisses Cuomo’s dismissal

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Bloomberg, at an NYU office opening in Brooklyn. (Reid Pillifant)
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Around the same time the U.S. Senate voted this morning to begin debate on a new package of gun laws, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was aggressively defending the bipartisan deal on background checks unveiled yesterday by senators Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin.

"If they pass what the agreement was yesterday with Toomey and Manchin, that would be an enormous step forward," said Bloomberg, the national face of the gun control movement, after an event inaugurating a new N.Y.U. office in downtown Brooklyn. "It's not going to be perfect, but it is close enough that you would see dramatically fewer murders, dramatically fewer family tragedies."

Bloomberg said it was "amazing" how far the bill has come "given the political realities." He also brushed off some criticism from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said yesterday that the current bill was so watered down that it was "only better than nothing."

"You know, Gov. Cuomo passed a bill that helps New York," Bloomberg said. "New York has some of the best gun laws, some before Andrew, and some that he's put in, and he deserves a lot of credit for that.

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"The thing that we thought would be the most helpful to put in a bill is microstamping, which the governor knows, but he made the decision that the votes were not there for that. So he passed what he could get done. You don't sit there and say nothing is better than something."

Bloomberg said he would still prefer to see a federal ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, but "there's not a chance of getting that through Congress."

The real battle lines, according to the mayor, are over background checks, which he said was the "number one objective" of his Mayors Against Illegal Guns group, and the top point of opposition from the National Rifle Association.

Asked by a NY1 reporter about the N.R.A.'s statement that yesterday's deal was a defeat for Bloomberg, he gave a comically puzzled look.

"I don't know, can you explain that?" he said, to laughs from the crowd. "I'll have somebody take a transcript and send it to me. How can what I just said and what they're doing, and everything we put out, can that have any comparison to reality, to that remark? I don't know what the hell they're talking about.

"This is the second thing they've bet the store on," he said. "Their number one project for last year was preventing the re-election of Barack Obama. I'd be happy to give NY1 the phone number of the White House. You should call and ask who's living in the White House. Does that tell you how good the N.R.A. did last time?"

Bloomberg said background checks are "the only thing they really fear," since the assault weapons ban was unlikely to pass this time.

"Having said that, the N.R.A.'s real thing was to stop anything," he said. "And once we have some sensible gun laws, and once elected officials understand they don't have to kowtow to the N.R.A., that the public has a voice here, and the public wants to be heard, and the public is oging to vote in the next election whenever anybody is running, based on whether people were rational on this and tried to save their lives, that's what matters here."

Bloomberg dismissed the criticism that provisions allowing for private sales and transfers among family members were significant weaknesses in the bill.

"Number one, if you want to sell a gun to your daughter, I would suggest you've got a family problem," he said. "Why don't you just give it to her? I never quite understood that.

"Number two, while it makes good headlines, could you just explain to me how anybody would enforce something like that? Having a law that is not enforceable makes everybody feel good but it's a fraud on the public. I've never understood how anybody thinks we could police that."

"You're exactly right, it isn't perfect," he added. "And maybe you should have it. But there's no ways to enforce it, and it's so small, it may make great headlines, but it's not the problem that we have here."

Bloomberg praised Toomey and Manchin repeatedly, saying they're "two guys who stood up and have done the right thing."

I asked Bloomberg if the support of Toomey, a Republican, for background checks was sufficient to earn the mayor's support, despite their differences on abortion and environmental issues.

"Make no mistake about it: I will support that guy," said Bloomberg. "I don't know if it's going to help him. But I respect Pat Toomey for standing up and doing what's right. And I hope the voters of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania understand that he did something for them, really that is saving lives. And he didn't do it for political reasons, that's for sure."

"Guys like Pat Toomey and Senator Manchin are leading from the front," he added. "And yes, I'd be very happy, I'd be honored, if they wanted help from me, I would be honored to do it."

When he finished with that answer, after about half an hour of taking questions, mostly about guns, the crowd of about 40 people applauded.