With little political capital to lose and millions of his own cash to spend, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is determined to check the role of guns in American society.
A 30-second Super Bowl ad featuring Mr. Bloomberg on a couch with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino will go a long way toward cementing Bloomberg as the king of gun control as the billionaire turns from attacking transfats and smoking to cracking down on illicit sales of firearms, too many of which he says end up in the hands of violent criminals.
“Mike Bloomberg is the only major political figure for whom gun control is a front-burner cause right now,” says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds.
Since 9/11 and the 2004 sun-setting of the assault weapons ban, courts, legislatures and public opinion have bit-by-bit turned toward the expansion of the Second Amendment's right to keep and bear arms. That trend has been exacerbated by the Obama presidency, a sense of economic insecurity, and lingering worries about the decline of Western civilization and American ideals like individual liberty, says Brian Anse Patrick, a communications professor at the University of Toledo.
The boom in the number of Americans who have concealed carry permits, for example, hasn't come in the nation's rural, gun friendly reaches, but in cities, exurbs, and suburbs, where women often make up a significant portion of permit-seekers, Mr. Patrick says.
It's in part that spread of gun culture into major cities that inspired Bloomberg to join with Mayor Menino to launch Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), which has hired private investigators to reveal how easily weapons move through gun shows in places like Arizona and Tennessee and end up as illegal guns in cities like New York and Boston.
Given the fact that three-termer Bloomberg can't by law run for mayor again, and that he has a $19 billion personal fortune, his emergence as a major gun control advocate has a lot to do with his independence. Democrats, including President Obama, have largely laid off proposing new gun restrictions in order to stave off attacks on conservative Blue Dog Democrats supported by gun lobbies like the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Given the power of national and state gun rights organizations to confront politicians who attempt to restrict Second Amendment rights, Bloomberg's anti-gun stance would make a presidential run, which he has considered, difficult.
Whether Bloomberg can make a dent in how Americans perceive the role of the gun in society is also still very much a question, though his Super Bowl ad certainly raises the stakes. The ad will show in the local New York and Boston markets, largely liberal enclaves where laws and authorities still do more to discourage gun ownership than encourage it.
Two recent Supreme Court decisions – McDonald v. Chicago and District of Columbia v. Heller – have made it unconstitutional for cities like New York to ban handguns intended for self-defense. But MAIG, which is funded mainly by Bloomberg, has publicized independent stings that showed how consumers in Ohio, Tennessee, and Nevada can buy weapons at gun shows without having to pass a background check.
The group has also highlighted how gun shows allow legal straw purchasers to resell weapons into the black market.
The intent of the campaign, MAIG says, is not to restrict gun carry rights for legal gun owners, but to highlight and curb the illegal sales of guns. Bloomberg claims that illegal guns have killed more Americans since 1968 than all US casualties in World War II.
Nevertheless, the MAIG stings have upset gun rights proponents, who see them as publicity stunts aimed more at scoring political victories than reducing gun crime.
On the other hand, one strength of Bloomberg's position is that it argues that public safety extends beyond the ability to carry a gun and protect oneself, a point that gun control groups have struggled to convey in recent years.
“Until that understanding becomes part of our public understanding, the idea of gun rights will just keep expanding,” says Joan Burbick, author of “Gun Show Nation,” a critique of American gun culture.
Moreover, while Bloomberg's campaign angers Americans who believe in unfettered gun rights, many, if not most, American gun-carriers believe that some regulation of weapons is necessary, most notably to keep them out of the hands of irresponsible and maladjusted people. While it's not clear if the US Constitution can be used to prevent felons, for example, from buying and carrying guns, gun rights groups haven't been keen on challenging that legislative precedent.
“Even the conservative [Supreme Court] is not eager to adopt a truly extensive theory of gun rights,” says Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas, in Austin.