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The real reason Michael Bloomberg cares about guns
April 25, 2014 6:15AM ET
by Malcolm Harris @BigMeanInternet
During Michael Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor of New York, he loved nothing more than to lord over the nation’s largest city. Now he’s just a normal civilian multibillionaire, sitting right below the prime minister of India on the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people — a lowly position that is no doubt a source of immense personal disappointment. Short of patrolling New York’s parks in a spandex bodysuit to inflict vigilante justice on cigarette smokers and super-sized Slurpee drinkers, what’s a rich ex-mayor to do?
Luckily for Bloomberg, in American politics, controlling sublime amounts of capital is its own qualification, and lavishing it on pet issues counts as philanthropy. And this time, without an elected office to use for a pulpit, he’s going to need that money: After attacking tobacco and soda, Bloomberg is coming for guns.
In an extensive interview with The New York Times, the former mayor outlined his plan for a nationwide lobbying effort designed to counteract and overwhelm the National Rifle Association. He certainly has the cash: Despite its notoriety, the NRA spends only about $20 million a year, and relies heavily on the grassroots enthusiasm of its members. Bloomberg, on the other hand, shrugged at the idea of throwing in an experimental $50 million “as if he were describing the tip he left on a restaurant check.”
Bloomberg’s fortune and political strategies figure prominently in the description of his new hobby. But he evinces no passion for the issue unless he’s defending the racist, ineffectual and unpopular police practice of “stop and frisk.” After all, this is the mayor who, after the NYPD accidentally shot nine innocent bystanders while attempting to subdue a single armed man near the Empire State Building, angrily told a reporter, “If somebody pointed a gun at you and you had a gun in your pocket, what would you do? I think that answers the question.” He sounds more like Charles Bronson than James Brady, so why is Michael Bloomberg America’s most prominent gun control advocate?
If Bloomberg wanted to spend some pocket change to undermine any other constitutional right, liberals would quickly complain about how the nation’s elites use their money to overinfluence policy and consolidate power away from the broader citizenry. The billionaire Koch brothers, who fund numerous conservative and libertarian causes, have become archetypes of this phenomenon, to the benefit of Obama-aligned outrage sites such as Salon and ThinkProgress. But when it comes to the Second Amendment, liberals don’t see a question of freedom or liberty, even when a billionaire tries to buy it away.
What really irks Bloomberg about the right to bear arms isn’t the red herrings we throw around in the gun rights debate, such as hunting or self-defense. Rather, he hates its foundation in popular sovereignty. It’s easy to forget that when the Bill of Rights was being drafted, the founding fathers took for granted that the United States would not field an army during peacetime. With the enumerated rights to association and the press — as well as arms — they attempted to place the tools of 18th century revolution (and thus American sovereignty) permanently in the hands of the enfranchised public. Militias weren’t supposed to be local armies, they were supposed to be the Army. As Rep. Samuel Nasson wrote to Rep. George Thatcher in 1789, “Spare me on the subject of Standing armeys in a time of Peace they allway was first or last the downfall of all free Governments it was by their help Caesar made proud Rome Own a Tyrant and a Traytor for a Master.”
Bloomberg has never had a problem with standing armies; in 2011 he even bragged to an audience at MIT, “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.” The NYPD is the largest, best-equipped municipal police force in the country, and its influence extends far beyond American territorial borders. It operates in 11 foreign cities and runs its own foreign policy and intelligence network. Bloomberg personally boasted that the NYPD has the capacity to shoot down passenger planes. It’s clear from his record that it’s not the “gun” part of “gun control” Bloomberg is interested in.
There’s no doubt America needs to curb gun use and possession. The question is, whose guns? There are 34,500 members of the NYPD, and in 2012 they fatally shot 16 people. That gives Bloomberg’s army a rate of over 46 shooting deaths per 100,000, killing people at a clip that dwarfs any civilian level in the country. To put it in perspective, Chicago — an American city known for gun violence — hit its peak murder rate of 34 per 100,000 in 1992. American law enforcement is increasingly militarized — as Radley Balko reports in his book “Rise of the Warrior Cop”: “Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment — from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers — American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield.” And this army takes a lot of prisoners: While gun violence has markedly declined following heightened crime in the ’90s, incarceration rates haven’t returned to earth, nearly quintupling since the early ’70s, making Americans the most imprisoned people in the world.
While Bloomberg is squaring up to spread fears about armed Mormon cattle ranchers gone wild, we should be more worried about guns in the hands of the police. To further his agenda, Bloomberg is counting on the public’s unwillingness to look beyond the flashiest proximate cause of surprise violence, as well as liberal stereotypes about rural Americans who own guns. But the biggest, most violently irresponsible gun owner in the country isn’t some left-wing caricature redneck or a deranged teen plotting a massacre from his basement. It’s the state.
Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.