NEW YORK (Reuters) - Among the slick, million-dollar ads for the likes of Pepsi and Honda during the Super Bowl this Sunday, viewers in New York and Boston 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.
Murder has been on the decline in New York and other major American cities for years, but the mayors say they still see too many dead cops and teens. On Tuesday night, Bloomberg was at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan visiting a New York police officer who had just been shot in the face in Brooklyn.
"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 in World 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-funded National 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 both Democrats 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 the U.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."
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," said Carolyn 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.
Bloomberg launched another probe after the January 2011 shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Using city money, he sent undercover investigators to Arizona to repeat the gun show sting and prove how easy it was for someone like Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, to get a gun.
That move enraged supporters of unfettered gun rights.
"The 'sting' was a waste of money that misleads Americans and did nothing to reduce crime," wrote John Lott Jr., an economist who writes about guns, in a column on FoxNews.com. "Talk about an aggressive publicity stunt."
The NSSF's Keane said there are serious problems with many MAIG actions. He cited another investigation in which MAIG used gun data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to sue dealers found to be selling guns to straw buyers.
"The New York City police department went to the ATF, traced data, turned that traced data over to private investigators, violated federal law, and interfered in 18 ongoing criminal investigations," he said. "The ATF had to pull agents out of the field because they were placed at risk."
Marc Lavorgna, a spokesman for the New York City mayor's office, said in response: "They can't argue the substance, so they continue to make a false, tired claim that has been directly refuted by the ATF. And the courts have validated that our investigations were legal."
The ATF did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Opponents of the mayors' efforts have also seized on a Department of Justice program codenamed "Fast and Furious" to discredit sting operations. Beginning in 2009, the ATF, investigating a gun-trafficking network in Arizona and Mexico, supplied 2,000 illegal guns they hoped to trace through the system so they could catch the leaders. Instead, they lost track of hundreds of the guns - two of which were found near the murder scene of Brian Terry, a border patrol agent, in 2010.
Last Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder was called before a congressional committee for a second time to explain how the program went bad. He repeated that senior Justice Department and ATF officials had not known about the operation until it was over.
Members of the MAIG say they are not trying to take guns away from their legal owners, just to close loopholes that allow criminals to get guns and move them around undetected.
"It's a serious safety issue," said Margaret Stock, the Democratic mayor of Butler, Pennsylvania, the town of 13,000 where Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum spent part of his childhood. "If an officer gets shot with an illegal gun I'm responsible."
Butler is in a sparsely populated area of western Pennsylvania where the first day of deer hunting season is often a school holiday.
"We're a big hunting community, but this is illegal handguns, it's a totally different issue," Stock said. "I had a little bit of backlash from local members of the NRA that I was somehow anti-gun. That was not the intent of the coalition."
MAIG's efforts have spurred some change. In 2008, Wal-Mart (WMT.N) signed the voluntary 10-point code of conduct MAIG developed for gun sellers. It includes videotaping the area of a store where guns are sold, setting up a computerized gun tracing and alert system, and performing background checks on its employees.
An Ohio gun show operator identified in MAIG's 2009 sting began offering police and federal firearms agents a free booth at his shows to strengthen background checks and help dealers recognize straw buyers, according to the Dayton Daily News.
MAIG claims on its website that "four out of the seven gun shows and venues" fingered in the 2009 investigation "have changed their practices."
No one thinks gun control is going to be the most important issue in 2012, but there are specific races and constituencies where it certainly will matter.
One such race is northwestern Arkansas, where a 33-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran named Ken Aden is challenging his former battalion commander for a Congressional seat. Aden is running as a progressive Democrat; his Republican opponent, Steve Womack, is a freshman incumbent, part of the Tea Party sweep of the 2010 midterm elections.
Aden, who has already met with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other party officials in Washington, has strong views on guns. He collects them, and say he knows what damage they can do. When Aden was 16 his father was shot and killed by his stepmother, using his dad's own 357 magnum and his shotgun.
"We've got to keep guns out of the wrong hands," Aden said.
He supports the background checks mandated by the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and has pledged in his platform to "fight to make sure that dangerous assault rifles and ammunition with no practical purpose in hunting, self-protection, or sport shooting ... stay off our streets."
Womack, for his part has co-sponsored several pieces of legislation to reinforce Second Amendment rights, including a bill that would force states to honor other states' concealed carry permits.
"New, more stringent gun laws will not keep guns out of the hands of criminals," Womack told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in January 2011, after the Tucson shootings. "Rather, proper enforcement of our current laws will provide the necessary mechanisms to ensure the well-being of the American people."
The NRA is telling supporters that President Obama will outlaw guns in a second term by appointing Supreme Court justices to reverse the gains made in the Heller and McDonald decisions. The White House denies that it has any such aim.
"The real threat to the Second Amendment is the reelection of President Obama," said LaPierre.
He believes that other Democratic candidates will stay away from gun issues so as not to draw attention to Obama's ultimate game plan.
"Their strategy is to fog the issue through the 2012 election, because they don't want the Second Amendment or guns to prevent the reelection of President Obama," LaPierre said of the Democrats.
Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, who has spent many years polling on gun issues, said her data suggest two audiences will be open to gun-control measures in the 2012 elections: Latinos and suburban women.
Her firm, Lake Research Partners, conducted a poll in late October for MAIG that found 76 percent of Latinos supported a new program requiring gun dealers in border states to report when someone attempts to buy more than one semi-automatic rifle within a five-day period.
Suburban women, Lake said, who are known to be swing voters, want guns kept out of their neighborhoods.
In addition to his work with MAIG, Mayor Bloomberg is keeping a close eye on elections all around the country. He has already backed six candidates for Virginia's state senate with contributions of $25,000 each, and may give to more candidates.
MAIG's Feinberg said the group had not yet identified congressional races it wanted to support, but, he added, "We're always watching."
Additional reporting by Edith Honan