NEW YORK (Reuters) - Among the slick, million-dollar ads for the likes of Pepsi and Honda during the Super Bowl this Sunday, viewers in Washington will see a far more modest spot. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino will be sitting on a couch touting an issue most politicians avoid like the plague: gun control.
The two mayors, whose local teams face off in the big game, are making the pitch for Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), the organization they co-founded in 2006.
"We have someone who's dedicated his life to protecting all of us, who has had a much too close brush with death tonight because of what appears to be an illegal gun," Bloomberg told a news conference. He added that more Americans have been killed by illegal guns since 1968 than were killed inWorld War II.
Candidates for local and national office in the U.S. have faced sharp backlashes for advocating restraints on gun ownership, such as assault weapons or guns on campus. Such pushes draw fire from the well-fundedNational Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies. For many defenders of the Constitution's Second Amendment - the right to bear arms - guns are the single issue on which they vote.
"We have to face the fact that bothDemocrats and Republicans have for a while viewed this as the third rail of American politics," said John Feinblatt, who helps run MAIG as Bloomberg's chief advisor for policy and strategic planning. (Bloomberg is an independent; Menino is a Democrat.)
Democrats, who are more likely than Republicans to favor some restrictions on gun ownership, made a conscious decision to stay away from the gun issue in the 2010 midterm congressional elections. The aim: protect the so-called Blue Dog conservative Democrats in theU.S. House of Representatives, who didn't toe the party line on gun control. Most were defeated anyway.
If the Democratic Party hoped to keep the gun issue off center stage in the 2012 presidential race, MAIG's campaign makes that unlikely. So does the fact that the NRA and the gun industry's trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), have announced they will have a combined war chest of $225 million.
"We are anticipating having a voter-education effort that will be our largest effort ever," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel at the NSSF.
NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre echoed the sentiment.
"I don't think this is going to be an apathetic year for American gun owners."
NO MORE CANDLES
New York's activist mayor cannot simply restrict handguns in his city - as he has done with smoking and transfats. Two Supreme Court decisions - District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago - have declared such local initiatives unconstitutional. Instead, Bloomberg launched MAIG, which now has 600 members nationwide. Although it has a handful of private donors, the bulk of MAIG's $4 million budget comes out of the mayor's own pocket.
"He's putting his money where his mouth is," saidCarolyn McCarthy, a Democratic congresswoman from Long Island. She entered politics after a 1993 shooting spree on the Long Island Rail Road left her husband dead and her son severely injured.
Bloomberg, in his third and last term, is free from concerns about electability and can tap a personal fortune of $19.5 billion, according to a November estimate by Forbes. As for speculation that he might mount a presidential bid this round or next, his leadership on such a divisive issue makes that look less likely.
"There was a lot of political capital that was poured into this," one person who worked closely with MAIG said.
In the past, advocates for stricter gun controls held marches, rallies and candlelight vigils. MAIG has taken a far more activist approach, conducting undercover investigations and sting operations that are then dramatically revealed to the press.
In 2009,New York City contracted the security firm Kroll Inc. to send undercover agents to gun shows in Ohio, Tennessee and Nevada to show how people who could not pass a background check easily bought guns.
MAIG also used undercover investigators to expose gun dealers who sold to "straw purchasers," buyers intending to quickly resell the guns on the black market. Another investigation identified online gun sellers who did not require background checks.