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The coming battle over new gun laws could be the biggest in a generation. Leading the charge for gun rights, the National Rifle Association with its huge budget and grassroots operations. On the other side, a new leader has emerged in recent years. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not only outspoken on gun control, he's also opened his substantial wallet for the cause. NPR's Peter Overby has this report.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: President Obama has proposed big changes in federal gun laws. But in his inaugural speech yesterday, he mentioned them only obliquely.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.
OVERBY: Mayor Against Illegal Guns, one of the groups backed by Michael Bloomberg, isn't speaking so softly.
JOHN FEINBLATT: Newtown broke America's heart. And everything is different since then.
OVERBY: That's John Feinblatt, chief policy advisor to the mayor and also chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He was on Capitol Hill last week, barely a month after 20 elementary school students were shot to death at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. And how much will Bloomberg spend on this fight?
FEINBLATT: The mayor will do what it takes to save lives.
OVERBY: Which could be a lot of money. The National Rifle Association's annual budget surpasses $200 million. And it's only the biggest of many pro-gun groups. On the other hand, Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire 25 times over according to Forbes magazine. That puts him a few notches below conservative industrialist David Koch and his brother, Charles, and a few steps above liberal financier George Soros. Leslie Lenkowsky is a professor of Public Affairs & Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University.
LESLIE LENKOWSKY: People like the Kochs, Mayor Bloomberg and many others have learned that success in the public arena depends on using multiple avenues.
OVERBY: And here, Bloomberg's using two avenues. First is Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He's a cochairman and the biggest funder. In 2009, Mayors Against Illegal Guns helped engineer a rare defeat in Congress for the NRA. The Senate rejected a proposal that would have made states honor concealed carry permits from other states.
The NRA unleashed its grassroots network on some of the mayors in Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Here's a video from 2009, NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons talking to a program host on the American Trigger Sports Network.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
RACHEL PARSONS: We've seen a great decrease in the membership of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey.
PARSONS: This is great news.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's very exciting news. I can hear the applause in the background.
OVERBY: Maybe. But the mayors group has now nearly doubled. It claims more than 800 members. On Bloomberg's other avenue of political influence, he's the only funder of a superPAC new last year, Independence USA PAC. The PAC got started late, spent a relatively puny $8 million and still helped several pro-gun control candidates win.
Democrat Joe Baca, a vulnerable pro-gun incumbent in Southern California, was knocked from office by a $3 million ad blitz from Bloomberg. Baca didn't take it well.
JOE BACCA: Mayor Michael Bloomberg should be ashamed of himself for lowering himself to the level of dirty politics by his operatives.
OVERBY: The NRA didn't respond today to a request for comment about Bloomberg and his tactics. This winter, those tactics will include this Web video featuring Beyonce, Jamie Foxx and 51 other entertainment artists.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN CONTROL PSA)
PAUL RUDD: Aurora.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Fort Hood.
BEYONCE: Oak Creek.
AMY POEHLER: Newtown.
JEREMY LEE RENNER: Newtown.
AMANDA PEET: Newtown.
JON HAMM: Newtown.
CARLA GUGINO: How many more?
OVERBY: Perhaps more to the point for Congress, Mayors Against Illegal Guns is organizing waves of lobbying visits to Capitol Hill from mayors, police chiefs and survivors of gun violence. And behind that, there's the prospect of midterm campaign spending by Michael Bloomberg. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.