In a rare interview, the former New York mayor takes on the gun lobby, Congress and critics of his controversial stop-and-frisk policy
From the street outside, Bloomberg Philanthropies' stately, gray headquarters looks like any other brick-and-stone building on Manhattan's Upper East Side: an upscale apartment building, maybe, or a bank. Once you're buzzed through the unmarked entrance, you find a space that most closely resembles a brightly sparkling modern art museum. Paintings and sculptures, all labeled for visitors, line the spacious lobby and stairway landings of the minimal-luxe space where Michael R. Bloomberg has spent much of his time since January, when he left office as Mayor of New York City.
On a Friday afternoon in February, Bloomberg sits in a sleek boardroom near a pin-covered world map outlining his foundation's global work. Beside him are close advisor John Feinblatt – chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the national lobbying group Bloomberg founded with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in 2006 – and a pair of staffers. Two months after concluding his 12-year mayoral term, Bloomberg is eager to discuss his ongoing commitment to reducing gun violence. Just don't call it gun control. "Control has the implication that you're going to take away people's guns," he says. "[We want] sensible regulations: background checks to prevent minors and mentally ill and people with criminal records from buying guns." He notes that 16 states already require background checks for private handgun sales – California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island – and that these laws have been proven to work. "In those states, the murder of domestic partners is way down. The suicide rate is half of the national average. [The background-check system] isn't perfect, but the bottom line is it saves people's lives."
On a local level, the former mayor stands by his defense of the aggressive NYPD tactic known as stop-and-frisk, which targeted guns in high-crime areas by searching hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers each year, mostly black and Latino, the vast majority of them innocent of any crime. While federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled key parts of stop-and-frisk unconstitutional last August – and public debate over the policy helped sweep new mayor Bill de Blasio, a vocal stop-and-frisk critic, into office in the fall – Bloomberg remains convinced the controversial program saved thousands of lives.
Read on for a rare Q&A with Bloomberg about his strategy to beat the NRA, what he's doing to punish the senators who killed federal background checks last year, his personal history as a teenage gun owner, and more. "I'm in a very lucky position," says the businessman turned politician, whose net worth is estimated at $31 billion. "I've made a lot of money. I can devote a lot of my time to public service. There's not a lot of things that I will ever do that will save as many lives as focusing on guns, with the possible exception of smoking and obesity."
[UPDATE: In April, two months after this interview, Bloomberg announced the formation of a $50 million umbrella organization called Everytown for Gun Safety, combining the efforts of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Moms Demand Action, and a new grassroots advocacy group. "We’re not waiting for Washington to act: we're taking the fight to the state houses and city halls across the country," Bloomberg wrote in a follow-up email. "For too long, elected officials have only heard from the gun lobby. That won’t be the case any longer."]
[This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.]
Tell me why you're still fighting for better gun laws even after leaving office as mayor.
I and the foundation are trying to save lives. Particularly, I want the foundation to focus on things that other people aren't focusing on. So we took on smoking. We're working on obesity. Polio, [Bill] Gates is really the spearhead, but we've given him a lot of money. Malaria, building a better mosquito. Traffic deaths. Maternal health in Tanzania.
Guns are another one of those things that nobody was willing to take on. 12,000 people get killed with handguns every single year; 19,000 people commit suicide with handguns. And we're the only country with this problem. That's why we took this on. But the NRA, and even more right-wing organizations like Gun Owners of America, are so against anything because [they think] it's a slippery slope. I think if there was an issue of "Could you have your own nuclear bomb?" they might gulp, but they might say, "We should not have a law against that." In fact, the NRA testified a number of years ago in favor of background checks. They really did! But the trouble is, the NRA is losing numbers to the more right-wing groups, so they can't cave.
Has running Mayors Against Illegal Guns for the last eight years made you more or less optimistic about this issue?
Well, there are 16 states that already have [background checks], and they're populated states. So there's a big chunk of the country that's already protected by these laws. And, yeah, you're not going to get everybody until you get to a tipping point, but the fact that you save a lot of lives is not something to sneer at. And the fact that you can't save every life is not an argument not to try to save any lives.
In Colorado, we got a law passed. The NRA went after two or three state Senators in a part of Colorado where I don't think there's roads. It's as far rural as you can get. And, yes, they lost recall elections. I'm sorry for that. We tried to help 'em. But the bottom line is, the law is on the books, and being enforced. You can get depressed about the progress, but on the other hand, you're saving a lot of lives.
Isn't it dispiriting that Congress was unable to pass national background checks even after Sandy Hook?
I think it's naïve to think one story in the paper, one massacre, where the press gets in high dudgeon and says, "Everybody reads the story, everybody cares" – there's not a lot of evidence that that's true. It's great theater, but for most people it doesn't affect their lives.
What's your strategy to break the NRA's stranglehold on Congress?
I'm trying to support candidates – Democrats in the Senate and then the Republicans in the House – who will vote the right way on guns. Some of them have changed their positions, like [Pennsylvania Senator] Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican, and [West Virginia Senator] Joe Manchin. There are others who have stood up. Mitch Landrieu's sister [Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu] stood up.
But the NRA takes no prisoners. Put yourself in the following scenario. You're a Senator or Congressman, a Democrat. I ask you to have background checks. You say, "Mike, I can't be with you on background checks, but my opponent, the Republican, is worse." What the NRA says is, "Babes, we don't care. We're going after you. We're going after your spouse and your children and your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. Long after you're dead, we'll still be going after you." It's hard to think these guys aren't cuckoo and wouldn't probably do it, when they say that. A rational person would consider all of my views before they make a vote – maybe he won't be happy with my gun position, but I'm so good on the others I'll probably still get his vote. But for the NRA that's not an option.
Given that reality, how do you make it more attractive for politicians to come over to your side?
You go and you make sure that the senator or the congressman knows, if he goes against the NRA, you will support him. If he goes with the NRA and they support him, you're going to be against him. You run ads against them and try to get the public. We have been out campaigning against people like Mark Pryor. [ED. NOTE: Arkansas Senator Pryor, a Democrat, voted against federal background checks last year; in a follow-up email, Bloomberg confirmed that this strategy remains in place.] We've gotta convince Pryor that from a selfish, political point of view, he is better off voting with the great bulk of the American people – the 88 percent of all gun owners who say they want [background checks]. He'll do, I assume, what is in his interest in terms of getting elected and re-elected. If we make it more attractive to be on our side, to better accomplish his election and re-election, he'll do it. And if the NRA makes a better case, he won't.
Do you think President Obama has done enough on this issue?
The President can't do enough until we win. He's been okay on it. He gave Biden the responsibility, and Biden has spoken out. Whether you like the President or not, he has made his position known. Has he gone out there and said "I'm going to jump on a sword if you don't pass this"? That's probably a way to get it done, as a matter of fact. So many people on the Republican side would love it. Actually, maybe they wouldn't. Who knows. But you cannot fault Obama. He's out there.
What's it like to be, essentially, the public face of stricter gun regulation? Do you get a lot of hate mail?
Yeah, you get, every once in a while, a bad letter. But a lot of people will say, "Thanks for what you're doing on guns." Now, keep in mind, my friends and the people that I meet tend to be not rural hunters. But I have a lot of friends who are hunters, and they think I'm right on this. They want to keep their guns, and I don't have a problem with that.
It's like smoking: I've always defended your right to smoke. I think you're crazy, but I don't think we should take away your right. I do think we should take away your right to smoke where other people have to breathe your smoke. But if you go outside away from everybody else, I don't have a problem with that. And if you want to have a gun in your house, I think you're pretty stupid – particularly if you have kids – but I guess you have a right to do that. Someday, there is going to be a suit against parents who smoke in their houses or have guns in their houses by a kid. It's not that far-fetched.
Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, has said you're "insane" for proposing background checks. What's your response?
Well, number one, he was the one that testified [in favor of background checks in 1999]! So it's a little bit ridiculous. What's changed? More people are dead today. Certainly it isn't a problem that cured itself. The only reason Wayne is saying that is obviously because he's desperately trying to keep his members, because they've become less relevant given Gun Owners of America.
Ever met him?
I think I once called him and asked to get together, and he said no. Whether I got to him or his secretary I don't remember. Every once in a while, somebody sends me a guest membership in the NRA for a year. Then they send a renewal notice, which I've never bothered to send back. That may be somebody being cute. I discarded the last two issues of Rifle. You should see the guns that are offered! Straight in the wastebasket.
The NRA's position is that even something as simple as background checks is a way to chip away at the Second Amendment and take away everyone's guns.
You have a Second Amendment right, whether you like that or not – it's in the Constitution, we ain't gonna change it. But the Supreme Court says it's not a way to hurt the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court should be the decider as to what the Constitution says and doesn't say. That's the system! They're the decider. And we have [background checks] for 58,000 gun dealers. It hasn't stopped a normal person from getting a gun. What's the evidence of that? They just don't want anything.
Does it even make sense to wonder what James Madison would have thought about an AR-15?
I may be old, but I'm not that old. [Laughs] No, but also, I think you've gotta remember they were in different times. In James Madison's days, everybody lived in the country, out on the farm. Everyone went out and hunted. Today, we live much more densely, and when these people want to have a right to carry on campus – I don't know what you did in school, but I shouldn't have had a gun in school. I mean, come on! And that was before grass.
Have you ever owned a gun?
I had a .22-caliber rifle when I was a Boy Scout. I used to target shoot at camp in New England. You know, the usual things you do. I actually had built a little target in the basement, two-by-fours filled with sand. I don't know what the law is today on a 14-year-old owning a .22-caliber rifle. It may be that it's against the law today, because you're a minor, but it wasn't in those days. We went to a store and bought a rifle, and we had training of how to handle it – making sure there's no bullets in there, never pointing it at anybody, carrying it very carefully, locking it up at night. That's what you got from the Boy Scout riflery merit badge. But that was some time before 13 or 14, and not since then. I'm not a hunter. I certainly haven't killed anything with a gun.
No, I mean, guns are dangerous. The statistics are overwhelming. You're something like 22 times more likely to get killed in your home if you have a gun than if you don't. [Gestures at a staffer.] Let's say Amanda's trying to break in. "Excuse me, Amanda, I've gotta go get my gun to shoot you. Now, where did I put that combination to that lock? And the bullets were where? I don't know what the fuck…how do you turn the safety off?" Are you kidding me? The last thing you want to do when somebody breaks in and puts a gun toward you is try to go for a gun. That's really stupid. I don't know if you're going to get shot one way, but I guarantee you're going to get killed the other way.
Another aspect of this problem is that gun manufacturing is big business. There are corporations that have a lot of money riding on this.
Let's not get carried away. How big are they, for god's sakes? [ED. NOTE: The gun industry's yearly sales have been estimated at $11.7 billion.] Compared to the average business, no, they're not that big. And incidentally, if the issue is "Do you want to have jobs here in New York, or do you want to have, let's say, 3,000 New Yorkers killed?" How can you compare one to another? And the journalists never write that. I hear you about your job – is it more important than their lives? Come on.
You made reducing the number of weapons on the street in New York a priority when you were mayor. Did you learn any lessons about which policies worked best?
I've always thought that going to where the crime is reported by victims, looking for people that match the description of the perpetrator as provided by victims, and then looking to see if they are kids on the street – because almost all murders are young minority males killing young minority males. It's like 90 percent. Take out domestic violence, after that there's nothing left. [Gesturing at staffer again.] Amanda has no chance of getting killed in any meaningful sense. She can take the subway every day, she can walk in every neighborhood. If she got killed, it's gotta be somebody she knows, or she was dealing, or buying with a lot of cash, or something like that.
So you go to those places where the crimes are reported, you look for people that look like the description, and then you use good police work. Is there any reason to stop them? The courts say if you act furtively, or there's a bulge in their pocket or something like that, you stop 'em. And what happens is the kids learn, "I don't want to carry a gun."
A federal judge ruled last summer that the policy you're talking about, stop-and-frisk, violated the constitutional rights of black and Latino New Yorkers as it was applied.
Well, that's what cops do. That is the job. If you don't do that, you're not gonna ever stop anybody. And in fact, one judge did rule that it was discriminatory. We argued – and I am 100 percent convinced it would have won on appeal – that that's not true. We are not targeting any race. The sick thing in our society is, the perpetrators and victims fit that description, 90 percent of them. That's where we should be focusing our efforts. We did two things, really: Less incarceration, because you create less criminals, and stop-and-frisk. If you hadn't done that in the last 12 years, 9,000 more murders would have taken place in New York City, and they all would have fit that description of male minorities, 15 to 25. Just think about the carnage. Think about the families.
Your successor as mayor has dropped the city's appeal of that ruling. Are you saying you think that will lead to a rise in gun violence?
I don't … I have no idea. But [new NYPD commissioner] Bill Bratton is a very competent police officer who has a record of being tough on crime while he was here, and tough on crime when he was in California. And he used basically the same methods that we use here, although, in that case, when they stopped it was generally stopping somebody in a car rather than stopping them on the street. But that's just the difference. I think Bill Bratton is a competent guy.
Do you think there's a way to continue searching for guns that addresses the judge's concerns about discrimination?
One of the problems with this is the way the reporting works. We didn't go from 600,000 to 100,000 stop and frisks in one year. [ED. NOTE: Public data compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union records approximately 601,000 police stops in 2010; 685,000 in 2011; 532,000 in 2012; and 191,000 in 2013.] When there's pressure to report stop-and-frisks, Amanda says, "Hello, how are you?" Guy writes out a ticket, "I stopped-and-frisked him." When the pressure is to not do it, he may have strip-searched her and found a gun and whatever – he doesn't file a thing. That's a difference in reporting. It's virtually impossible to imagine that the police totally changed their tactics from one year to another. Come on. They read the press, and when there's pressure, they say, "I don't want to have somebody come after me." Court decisions that put an inspector general or more oversight will have the unintended consequences of possibly changing actions, but certainly changing reporting.
Did the controversy over stop-and-frisk ever make you rethink how efficient it was as a means of limiting guns?
I've looked at it very carefully, and I am 100 percent convinced that as explained to me by lawyers, we were consistent with the law. That we were doing the right thing, and that we saved 9,000 lives. You can actually get a list of those 9,000 lives. It'll be an interesting list. That's what we should do – run an ad with the names of the 9,000 people.