With the debate over gun control once again dominating headlines in the wake of another horrific mass shooting, Connecticut senator Chris Murphy has emerged as a powerful new figure in Democratic politics. Elected just weeks after the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Murphy took office amid a major legislative effort to pass a background-check bill over the objections of both Republicans and the National Rifle Association. Democrats lost that fight, but Murphy—still haunted by the 20 young children and six others who died at Sandy Hook Elementary—was undeterred.
In the days following the recent massacre in Orlando, the 42-year-old lawmaker unexpectedly launched a filibuster that lasted for nearly 15 hours. Joined by 38 other Democrats, Murphy refused to leave the floor until both parties reached a tepid agreement to bring legislation to the floor. All four gun-control bills that received a vote were subsequently struck down, but Murphy’s protest sparked a national conversation and a nearly 25-hour-long Democratic sit-in the following week.
Despite the many obstacles facing gun-control advocates, Murphy believes the anti-gun-violence movement may have finally reached a turning point. Here, he speaks about his recent filibuster, the state of gun-control legislation in America, and the enduring influence of the N.R.A.
The Hive: Did your nearly 15-hour filibuster achieve what you hoped?
Chris Murphy: It worked in the sense that the last vote that we took in the Senate got more Republicans to break with the N.R.A. than ever before, so you know we are at a high-water mark in terms of Republican support for anti-gun-violence measures. It also worked in the sense that the American public became galvanized by what we did in the Senate and what the House did. We now have hundreds of thousands more people who care about this issue and who may end up voting on this issue because of what happened in the Senate and then in the House.
It seems like there has been an uptick in pro-gun-control rhetoric in the House and Senate. What’s changed?
Three things. First, the grassroots movement is getting stronger and stronger. In 2013, if you were talking tough on changing gun laws, you were walking out on a significant political limb. Today, you have a number of very powerful groups to back you up. I think that the gradual growth and strength of the anti-gun-violence movement is lending courage to the members that want to speak out.
Second, you now have this very toxic intersection between terrorism and guns. I don’t know why the murder of 20 first-graders didn’t motivate this country to action, but it does seem that there has been a new wake-up call as people figure out that terrorists aren’t hijacking planes, they’re going to gun stores to buy assault weapons. So I do think that the public consciousness has been raised as they see the purposeful strategy of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to take advantage of our loose gun laws.
Third, I think that Hillary Clinton has something to do with it. Clinton decided to make this a defining issue of her campaign early on, and that leadership has infected the rest of the party.
“There is a reckoning coming for Republicans.”
What were the challenges that Congress faced in passing gun-control legislation after Newtown?
The anti-gun-violence movement was essentially dormant from 1994 to 2012. There was this mythology built up about the assault-weapons ban that led people to believe that dozens of Democrats lost their seats because they voted for it. That’s not actually what happened, but the proponents of gun [control] went away for 20 years, and during that time the gun lobby built up one of the nation’s most politically powerful machines.
Fast-forward to 2012 and you have an N.R.A. that is more powerful than ever and an anti-gun-violence movement that is essentially nonexistent. At some level, it is no surprise that in 2013 we lost a vote on background checks despite the fact that 90 percent of Americans supported the measure. We just fundamentally weren’t ready for that moment. That’s our challenge here: we are never going to win one of these votes unless we’ve got a political infrastructure around the country that is able to rival the gun lobby.
How close are we to the day that Congress actually passes meaningful gun-control legislation?
I think that we still have a long fight ahead. But I think that 5 or 10 years from now, people will look back at the last two weeks as a watershed moment in the history of the anti-gun-violence movement. I think this was the moment when Democrats found their voice and found their spine, and when this became an issue that you can win elections on. I don’t think that we are there yet. It is probably going to take a couple of election cycles, but I think this is a turning point.
After the Orlando shooting, Democrats made a concerted effort to tie stricter gun laws to the fight against terrorism. Why don’t Republicans buy that argument?
I think the greatest obstacle is still the power of the N.R.A. I understand that Republicans proffer this argument about due process. But they never use that argument to complain about the no-fly list. People have a constitutional right to travel, just like they have a constitutional right to own a gun. But there has never been an argument about due process before your right to fly on a plane is taken away. So there is clearly something unique within the Republican caucus about the curtailment of gun-ownership rights.
Remember that we are talking about a tiny number of people here. There are only 200 people every year on the no-fly list or the selectee list who walk into a gun store and try to buy a gun. Worst case, 10 percent or 20 percent of the names on that list are imperfect. So you are talking about a couple dozen people who would have to wait a few days to buy a gun if there was a mistake. That’s why I just don’t buy a lot of the “on-the-record” arguments for why Republicans are opposing this measure. I think it still has to do with a worry that if you get on the wrong side of the N.R.A., you might lose a primary or lose an election.
You’ve been criticized for saying that by fighting “no fly, no buy” legislation, “Republicans have decided to sell assault weapons to ISIS.” Do you stand by that argument?
I am not saying that that is their desire, but when you oppose these bills, you have to understand that the consequence is that terrorists are going to get weapons. I understand that by supporting this measure, one of the consequences is that a small handful of people who are on those lists incorrectly will have to wait a few days to buy a weapon. I understand that if I vote for this bill there will be a handful of people who will be inconvenienced and have to wait to buy a weapon until the problem gets sorted out. But Republicans have to recognize that by opposing these bills, the consequence is that there will be terrorists who will walk into gun stores and get guns. So if you are voting against these bills, then you are absolutely voting to allow terrorists to buy guns.
Shortly after the Orlando shooting Donald Trump tweeted about meeting with the N.R.A. to discuss barring people on terrorism watch lists from buying firearms, which prompted it to respond, “The N.R.A. believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period.” Is the organization changing?
I don’t give the N.R.A. one ounce of credit for being on the record for saying that terrorists shouldn’t get guns. They have done everything possible to defeat proposals that stop terrorists from getting guns. They may have said on the record that they don’t want terrorists to get guns but then they have turned around and actively lobbied against those measures in Congress.
I think the N.R.A. is dangerously out of step with the American public. I think that there is a reckoning coming for Republicans. The N.R.A. is creating no room for compromise, and the American people are demanding compromise. So Republicans are having to choose in a way that they haven’t had to before.
There was a time when the N.R.A. was much more reasonable. After Columbine, they supported background checks, and as they became more radical, it wasn’t a liability for Republicans, because the public wasn’t voting on this issue. So you could be with the N.R.A. and you wouldn’t really risk any consequences at the ballot box, because there were very few voters who were showing up voting against you because of your allegiance to the N.R.A. That is changing, as well.
Many of your Senate colleagues have taken money from the N.R.A. Has that affected their judgment on these issues?
I think Democrats have realized that it really doesn’t matter how you vote on gun issues, the N.R.A. is coming after you just because you have a “D” next to your name. Mark Begich from Alaska was one of the few Democrats to vote against the background checks bill in 2013, and the N.R.A. still spent millions of dollars to defeat him.
On the Republican side, I don’t think that the N.R.A.’s power is connected to their money. I think the N.R.A. stamp of approval has become a proxy for a certain set of conservative values broader than your position on guns. I think that that’s the challenge—we have to find another way for Republicans to convey their conservative bona fides.