Michael Bloomberg proposed a sweeping array of federal gun control measures on Thursday, calling for a national gun licencing system and stricter background checks, hundreds of millions of dollars in new enforcement spending and the passage of a federal red flag law that would allow courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from people deemed dangerous.
Mr Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and the most recent entrant in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, paired the policy announcement with a visit to Aurora, Colorado, the site of a 2012 massacre at a movie theatre that left a dozen people dead and many more injured. He appeared with state representative Tom Sullivan of Colorado, whose son was killed in the Aurora shooting. Mr Sullivan, a Democrat, was elected to the legislature in 2018, unseating the incumbent Republican.
Mr Sullivan said in an interview that he was endorsing Mr Bloomberg for president because he trusted him above all the other candidates to wage a fight for stricter gun laws. Mr Bloomberg called him the day before Thanksgiving, Mr Sullivan said, to seek a meeting and ask for his support – the first presidential candidate to do so.
“I’ve seen what he can do, and has been doing, since the day my son was murdered on his 27th birthday in the Aurora theatre massacre,” Mr Sullivan said on Thursday. “There’s no one else I’m confident would be in the White House and stand up to the gun lobby.”
By putting an ambitious gun violence plan at the centre of his emerging candidacy, Mr Bloomberg is seeking to leverage his long record on the issue to set himself apart in the Democratic race. He has made gun control a personal cause since his days as mayor of New York, spending tens of millions of dollars from his personal fortune supporting stricter gun laws at the federal level and in a number of states, including Colorado. And it is a policy area where Mr Bloomberg, an ideological moderate who became a Democrat only in 2018, is closely aligned with the party’s liberal base, and where his prolific personal spending has bonded him closely with important activist groups.
But if Mr Bloomberg has strong credentials as a gun control advocate, it remains to be seen whether Democratic voters will give him more credit than other candidates for outlining a detailed agenda on the subject. Although there are gradations in their views and priorities, all of the major Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed a common set of policies on gun control, including imposing comprehensive background checks and reviving the federal ban on assault-style weapons. All but one of the leading candidates have endorsed a form of federal gun licensing, with former vice president Joe Biden as a notable exception.
The plan Mr Bloomberg unveiled on Thursday represents, in some respects, a shift leftward even for him. Where his advisers have in the past expressed some scepticism about the idea of a national gun licencing requirement, he is now embracing the idea.
The policy paper drafted by Mr Bloomberg’s campaign said that he would seek to require all would-be gun buyers to obtain a licence, either from the Department of Justice or from a state-level authority, before the purchase could go through. The paper also calls for the creation of a “central system” for tracking illegal guns and people who have been barred by courts or other authorities from possessing guns.
Mr Bloomberg’s endorsement of a federal licensing policy is likely to ripple widely in the world of gun control advocacy, where many groups, including those funded by Mr Bloomberg, have focused chiefly on tightening background checks. The idea of a national licencing requirement, which would be even more restrictive, gained wide traction in the presidential race after senator Cory Booker proposed one in May. At the time, John Feinblatt, a prominent gun control strategist close to Mr Bloomberg, expressed hesitation about the policy and suggested it was not “research tested.”
But versions of the policy were quickly endorsed by leading candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. Mr Biden has not gone as far, proposing instead that states be encouraged to set up licencing systems but suggesting that it would be excessive and politically risky for the federal government to get directly involved in issuing gun licences.
The stakes for Mr Bloomberg in the gun debate may be particularly high, as he seeks to persuade Democratic voters to look past some of his more conservative positions – including his record of championing aggressive policing as mayor and his general sympathy for the banking industry – and embrace him as a key champion of a few core progressive concerns. And as other Democrats criticise the way he is using his personal fortune in the election, Mr Bloomberg has pointed to his self-funded advocacy on guns, climate and other issues as proof of his good intentions.
A number of the gun control ideas Mr Bloomberg is proposing have been debated extensively in congress, endorsed by other Democratic presidential candidates and, in some cases, enacted at the state level by Democratic-controlled governments. His policy paper identifies states that have tried out some of the ideas he is endorsing, including red flag laws, certain kinds of background checks, the elimination of gun sales loopholes and different systems for tracking firearm sales.
Colorado has been a proving ground for some of those policies: As the state has trended steadily towards Democrats, lawmakers there have passed laws tightening background checks, limiting the size of ammunition magazines and enacting red flag procedures for seizing firearms from certain people. But the implementation of certain gun restrictions remains contested, with conservative Colorado sheriffs resisting them.
Mr Sullivan, who said he had been briefed on Mr Bloomberg’s plan, described it as mainly containing “the standard issues” that gun control groups advocate for, with the notable addition of the national licencing policy. That measure, he said, was “the next heavy lift” for lawmakers like him.
“It would be tough to do, but I think we’re headed that way,” he said.
Mr Bloomberg’s agenda includes a long list of other restrictions on firearms and ammunition, including raising the minimum age for gun purchasers to 21, banning guns in schools and creating a safe-storage requirement for gun owners. He is proposing to appoint a White House gun coordinator, to declare gun violence a public health emergency and to empower the Consumer Product Safety Commission to oversee guns as it does other products.
Mr Bloomberg is also calling for at least $300m (£230m) in new federal funding for gun violence prevention, split three ways between local violence-reduction programmes, public health research and an expanded budget for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
And like other candidates, Mr Bloomberg aims to repeal a 2005 federal law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, that gives gun makers special protections from exposure to lawsuits.
The New York Times