The NRA Controls Congress Now. So Gun-Control Advocates Have a New Strategy.

Bloomberg sees the future for gun control in ballot initiatives.

Michael Bloomberg at a press conference at City Hall on September 24, 2013.
National Journal
Lauren Fox
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Lauren Fox
Nov. 5, 2014, 8:53 a.m.

The Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation won big Tues­day with the elec­tion of a crop of U.S. sen­at­ors who share its Second Amend­ment views. NRA-backed can­did­ates won in Arkan­sas, Col­or­ado, Geor­gia, Kan­sas, Ken­tucky, North Car­o­lina, and South Dakota.

Now, with a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate, the NRA won’t have to fret about gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates find­ing a sym­path­et­ic ear in Con­gress and jam­ming through fed­er­al le­gis­la­tion. The group es­tim­ates it spent $35 mil­lion on the Sen­ate and le­gis­lat­ive shake-ups around the coun­try. It spent roughly $4 mil­lion on ads in Arkan­sas, Col­or­ado, and North Car­o­lina in Septem­ber. It in­ves­ted more than $2.6 mil­lion against Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Pry­or, who even voted against a back­ground check bill the NRA op­posed.

Gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates, mean­while, found their own suc­cesses on elec­tion night and offered a clue as to where the gun de­bate may be mov­ing in up­com­ing years.

Just weeks after a shoot­er killed three stu­dents at a High School in Marys­ville, Wash., voters there passed a bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive to ex­pand back­ground checks on all gun sales. Ini­ti­at­ive 594 was a top pri­or­ity for Everytown for Gun Safety, the Mi­chael Bloomberg-backed group that has fo­cused its ef­forts on chan­ging state laws in­stead of break­ing its way through the grid­locked Con­gress. Earli­er this year, former New York City May­or Bloomberg vowed to in­vest $50 mil­lion to de­feat the NRA.

“The only Wash­ing­ton that really mat­ters is Wash­ing­ton state. It is the only up-or-down vote in the coun­try,” says John Fein­blatt, the pres­id­ent of Everytown.”The NRA can bully politi­cians, but they can­not bully the Amer­ic­an people.”

Everytown for Gun Safety Ac­tion Fund de­voted six full-time staffers to its ef­fort in Wash­ing­ton and spent $4 mil­lion to pass the bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive. The NRA, mean­while, spent about $500,000. Everytown says that tak­ing gun con­trol straight to voters is a strategy it plans to du­plic­ate in the fu­ture, be­liev­ing that’s how it and oth­er gun-con­trol groups may be able to make up the most ground. Already, there are plans to push for a sim­il­ar bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive in Nevada. What makes the play so strong, ad­voc­ates say, is that voters tend to sup­port back­ground checks even when state le­gis­latures have been hes­it­ant to write them in­to law. The Wash­ing­ton state Le­gis­lature, for ex­ample, blocked sim­il­ar pro­pos­als in 2013 and 2014.

The NRA, however, says that Bloomberg’s group and oth­ers are mak­ing more out of a bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive than it’s worth. The NRA prom­ises that “all op­tions are still on the table” when it comes to chal­len­ging Wash­ing­ton’s new law.

“Bloomberg is will­ing to spend mil­lions of dol­lars to buy a head­line,” says NRA spokes­man An­drew Arulanan­dam. “Noth­ing in this ini­ti­at­ive would do any­thing to keep guns out of the hands of the people who are men­tally ill. We have a very long view of things, and what may seem like a set­back today does not mean the game is over.”

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