WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Tuesday led dozens of his Democratic colleagues, including U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), late into the night in delivering speeches on the U.S. Senate floor to discuss the impact of gun violence across the country and what legislators can do to stop it. During his remarks, Murphy called out Senate Majority Leader Mitch Connell and Senate Republicans for refusing to bring up bipartisan, common sense legislation, including the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, legislation to expand federal background checks, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives over 200 days ago.
Following the mass shootings this summer in Texas and Ohio, Murphy has been in direct negotiations with the White House and his colleagues U.S. Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks on prospective firearms purchasers. In January, Murphy led 40 Senators in introducing the Background Check Expansion Act. Over 90% of Americans support comprehensive background checks and research indicates that nearly a quarter of all gun sales in the United States may occur without a background check.
“Background checks work. They are the most impactful public policy measure. Since the background check law was passed in the mid-90s, over 3.5 million sales have been blocked to violent criminals and other prohibited individuals,” Murphy said.
Murphy continued: “90% of Americans support H.R.8. Don't tell me that this issue is controversial. It's just controversial in this bubble. It's not controversial out in the American public and it's not a blue state or red state issue. Background checks are just as popular in Georgia as they are in Connecticut.”
The full text of Murphy’s remarks is below:
“Thank you very much, Madam President. Let me thank once again my colleagues for being here on the floor with us this evening, for the compelling testimony of Senator Schatz and Senator Casey and Senator Brown, Senator Van Hollen, so many others who have joined us here this evening. We have a few more who will come down later in the evening, but I want to take a moment to put a face on this issue.
“There are 100 Americans who are killed every day by guns. The majority of these are suicides but many are homicides. Many are accidental shootings, domestic homicides. Shootings in this country happen at a rate 10 times that of any other high income nation. This is a uniquely American epidemic and Senator Schatz very aptly pointed out that it can't be because of mental health, because we have no more mental illness in this country than any other nation does. It can't be because of lack of law enforcement resources; we spend just as much money if not more on law enforcement than any other country in the world. It's not because we put less money into treatment for mental illness; we put more money on a per capita basis and other nations do.
“To explain our abnormally high rate of gun violence, 10 times that of other high income nations, you have to tell a story of the proliferation of dangerous weapons, of the ability of almost anyone, regardless of their criminal history or their history of illness, to be able to get their hands on a weapon. Nowhere else in the high income world is it so easy to be able to get your hands on a weapon and often a weapon of mass destruction.
“Leo Spencer was born an only child. He grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. But he was far from an only child in his mind. His cousins were like his siblings, and he spent summer after summer after summer with them in Boston, Connecticut, and Cape Verde and St. Thomas. He was known as “Lil Bill” – and his friends described him affectionately as an amazing person, a phenomenal soul. The greatest friend they ever had. The best family member they knew.
“A family member said Leo was a simple man who loved to keep himself, but deep down inside he was just a free spirit that wanted nothing more than make people laugh. Always joking around, he kept us on our toes, his smile lit up the room. Another friend said never one to follow trends, Leo was intent on making his own path through hard work and unparalleled ambition. This friend said he was a creative soul with a deep love for expressing himself through music. He loved fiercely without bonds. Leo placed a priority on making sure that his family and friends were happy. He made each person feels like they were the most important person in the world. He loved his parents. He did everything he could for them. He wanted to take care of his mom the way that she took care of him.
“Leo, on September 8th of 2019, just a few days ago, was shot in the head and the neck while sitting in the passenger seat of a friend's car. Friend hit the accelerator, drove him as fast as he could to Bridgeport Hospital, but he was pronounced dead. Leo Spencer was one of the 100 Americans who die every day from gun violence. But it's so much bigger than Leo. I mentioned Leo's cousins, his family members, his friends – their lives will never be the same either, forever altered. Studies show that when one person dies from a gunshot wound, there are 20 other people who experienced life-altering trauma, it becomes a cycle that becomes hard to get out of. I'll talk a little bit later about Sandy Hook, Connecticut, but Sandy Hook will never ever be the same, never, after what that community has been through.
“And Leo, whether he knew it or not, may already have been affected by gun violence, because when you grow up in places like Bridgeport, where kids literally fear for their life when they are walking to and from school, the trauma associated with the fear of losing your life from gun violence – it ruins your brain. We call this a public health epidemic, not to be cute with our words, but because that's exactly what it is. When you don't know whether you're going to make it through the rest of the week as a child, and studies show that a criminally high number of young people of color in this country living in urban environments that are violent don't believe that they're going to live past 25 years old. When that is your belief something happens to your brain.
“Most of us in this chamber probably only confronted once or twice in our life a fight or flight moment. That is a moment in your life where you face a risk that is so great, a danger that is so acute, that you got to make a decision in a split second, do you fight or do you run? Our bodies are designed to rush into our brains a hormone called cortisol that helps us make that quick decision. Many of us may have never actually faced that moment. And frankly, I don't hope that anyone ever has. But when you grow up in a place like the East End of Bridgeport, you face that decision, fight or flee, on a weekly basis. And what doctors will tell you is that these kids’ brains who grow up in these neighborhoods are literally bathed in cortisol. Now cortisol when it comes in and out in an instant, once or twice in your life, it can be helpful, but when it is flowing through your circuitry on a regular basis, it literally corrupts your brain. It corrupts your brain. And so it is no coincidence that all of the quote-unquote underperforming schools in this country are in the violent neighborhoods. Because these kids show up with brains that cannot learn, with brains that cannot cope, that cannot create lasting memories. Brains that have been just atrophied by the daily fear for their lives that they experienced, because this Congress has done nothing, nothing to address their reality. And so we're down here on the floor today to tell you about people like Leo so that maybe our colleagues who aren't responding to the numbers may respond to the stories of those lives that have been lost.
“Let me tell you another one. Over the winter, we shut down the government for an unacceptable period of time. And so we were all figuring out what to do with our days when we weren’t legislating. I decided one day to take a trip up to Baltimore. Baltimore in some years has been the most violent city in the country, with the most kids that are going through this life altering cycle of trauma. But I had heard about a program in an elementary school that was teaching kids how to be entrepreneurs, that was giving them a vision of their life after growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore. Trying to give them a pathway of hope, right? A ray of sunshine in their life. And so I went up to talk to the person who ran that program, her name is Joni Holifield. She and I sat down in a classroom on the second floor of Matthew Henson Elementary School, and she started to explain to me her path out of the corporate world into programming for kids at schools like Matthew Henson, and what she thought that that programming could bring to those kids.
"And in the middle of this conversation, the intercom starts blaring a recorded message: code green, code green, code green. I didn't know what a code green was. Joni didn't know the code green was, but shortly thereafter, a teacher opened the door to our classroom and yelled, ‘shut the blinds, turn off the lights.’ And so we did as instructed. We sat there a little nervous not knowing what a code green was. Shortly thereafter, someone from the main office, knowing that there was the United States Senator in a second floor classroom, called up and Joni answered the phone and was told that a code green means there's been a shooting in the proximity of the school and that the school is on lockdown. Day that I was there at this elementary school in Baltimore, there was a shooting within a block or two of the school. And here's what I found out: that morning, there had been a delay in school starting it snowed that morning, and so I walked in with all the rest of the kids at around 9:30—10 o'clock.
“About the same time that I was showing up to the school that morning a young man by the name of Corey Dodd brought his two twin little girls to school that morning. He was doing a solid for his wife who was home tending for their relatively newborn child. Corey decided to bring the kids to school that morning himself. He drove home, couple blocks away, after dropping the twins off right about the time that I was probably walking upstairs to the second floor. And when he got out of his car, he was shot to death. One of his other little daughters always sits at the door waiting for her dad to come home and she was there waiting for Corey. Her mom had to tell her that her dad was never coming home. He had been shot outside of their house that morning. And as that code green was happening inside that elementary school and kids were probably having a little bit of fun, wondering when the lights were going to come back on, there were two little girls who were never going to see their father again, who were going to be told in a matter of hours that this shooting had taken the life of their dad and every single kid in that school was going to start wondering, is it going to be my dad next is it gonna be my mom next, that cycle of trauma, that cortisol that bathes kids brains, it was going to be a reality, once again for all of these kids in this neighborhood. And that's just one day that I happen to be in Baltimore.
“Imagine that it isn't just coincidence. Imagine that that's the reality day after day after day for kids all across this country. Why are we doing nothing? Why are we sitting on our hands? Why are my Republican colleagues waiting for the president to give them direction? It would be one thing if we didn't know what to do. Right? If we were overflowing with compassion for those two twin little girls in Baltimore, Maryland, for the family of Leo Spencer in Bridgeport, but we just couldn't figure out what would make this situation better. That's not the case. We know what will make this situation better. There is no mystery about it.
“In my state of Connecticut, we passed a law requiring all handgun buyers to pass a background check as part of a permit process. And studies show that there was a 40% reduction in the gun homicide rate after Connecticut passed that law. Okay, well, that's just one state, you say 40%? That's pretty serious. That's a pretty big return on one change in the law. Give me another state you say? Okay, let's take a look at Missouri, which did the opposite. A few years ago, it repealed its purchase permit law that requires you to get a background check with every sale of a weapon in Missouri. And guess what happened? A year later, gun homicides went up by 23% --controlling for every other factor that could have explained it. In fact, during that period of time, gun homicide rates were going down and all the states around Missouri and they went up in Missouri and then they found out that, in fact, in other states, what did go up in those other states were the number of weapons used in crimes that came from Missouri. Because all of a sudden you [don’t] need a background check in Missouri. So if you want to traffic guns to another state, Missouri was the place to get them.
“Across the board, when you look at all of the states experiences, you don't get everywhere 40% and 23%. But on average states that have background checks have 15% lower homicide rates than states that have them. And if we did this on a national basis, even states that have universal background checks would benefit. Why? Because the crime guns that are being used in Connecticut aren't coming from Connecticut. They're coming from states with, you guessed it, no universal background checks. Guns being used in Chicago don't come from Chicago. The guns being used for crimes in New York City don't come from New York City. 1% of guns used in crimes in New York City come from New Jersey. You know why? New Jersey has universal background checks. So those guns are coming up from South Carolina and Georgia and places where you can go to a gun show and get a whole truckload of guns without having to ever go through a background check.
“Background checks work. They are the most impactful public policy measure. Since the background check law was passed in the mid-90s, over 3.5 million sales have been blocked to violent criminals and other prohibited individuals. And that is just the tip of the iceberg because those are the people that actually had the gall to set foot in the gun store, knowing that they had [an] offense in their history that would prohibit them from buying a gun, maybe not knowing that, but these are the people that went into the gun store and tried to buy a gun and got denied. There are millions and millions of more people who wanted guns but couldn't get them and didn't go into the gun store in the first place.
“The problem is today, getting that denial from the gun store is not really a barrier to buying a gun. Because 20, 30 percent of gun sales now happen without a background check. They happen in a private sale between one person and another. They happen at a gun show, which are forums that don't require under federal law background checks. A man in Odessa, Texas, failed a background check because he had been diagnosed by a clinician as seriously mentally ill. That didn't stop him from getting a gun. He just found a private seller that he found another way. Private seller gave him a gun and didn't require him to go through a background check. He took that gun and used it to kill seven people and injure 20 more.
“Now, I don't think that you have to pass a law to fit the last mass shooting. I think that's a ridiculous trap that people try to put us in. This isn't the only mass shooting in which universal background checks could have changed the outcome, one of the first mass shootings that sits in my consciousness [is] Columbine, another example of a shooter who got a gun outside the background check system, who couldn't have gotten one through it. So whether you want anecdotal evidence, or statistical data, I’ve got it all, background checks work. But here's what's so maddening: people love background checks. Apple pie and baseball and grandma, none of them are as popular as background checks are. 90% of Americans like background checks. Show me any other public policy today in the United States of America who gets 90% support in this country. 80% of gun owners. 70% of NRA members. Everybody wants background checks. Universal background checks. They don't want Manchin-Toomey, which just expands background checks to commercial sales. They want H.R.8., which has passed the House of Representatives [and] has been sitting on the floor of the United States Senate for 202 days. That's what Americans want. 90% of Americans support H.R.8.
“Don't tell me that this issue is controversial. It's just controversial in this bubble. It's not controversial out in the American public and it's not a blue state or red state issue. Background checks are just as popular in Georgia as they are in Connecticut.
“And as Senator Schatz said, we don't have to wait for the President to tell us what to do. Senator McConnell has a different copy of the constitution that I have. My copy of the Constitution says that none of us are required to get permission slips from the president before we act. Before we do something that we think is good for the country. And it's wild to me how the Republican leadership is so eager to advertise that the Senate will do nothing unless President Trump gives it permission.
“He's not the most popular guy. I don't know why my friends in the Republican side would just openly admit that they don't act unless the president tells them that it's okay. That's not how it has to be. We can make a decision ourselves. And on this one, every single person here should do because it's the right thing, but it's also going to win you a lot of support back home.
“Madam President, I have a few more colleagues who want to say a few words and then I may wrap up at the end. But I want to finish in my last five minutes or so by reading something to you.
“And I apologize to my friend, Neil Heslin because I made a commitment to read this every Father's Day after the shooting in Sandy Hook, and I forgot to do it this year. And so this is a makeup effort.
“I don't want to talk too much about what happened in Sandy Hook. This morning, I've spent plenty of time talking to my colleagues about it. Unfortunately, there is a macabre club of Senators and Congressmen who have now had to walk with their community through these horrific mass shootings. Maybe there's not another one like Sandy Hook where 20 six and seven-year-olds lost their lives in a matter of five minutes, but they're all terrible. They're all awful.
“And one of the things that happens in the wake of these mass atrocities is that you get to know the victims' families. You get to know the parents or the brothers and the sisters, they become friends of yours. And I feel like I have this personal obligation to the families in Sandy Hook, separate and aside from the global obligation I believe I have to human beings in this country to do something about the issue of gun violence.
“And amongst the parents one of those that I become closest to is a gentleman by the name of Neil Heslin. Jesse Lewis was one of the children who lost their life that day. Neil has had an up and down life. An up and down life. He would admit that to you. It hadn't been an easy life for Neil. Jesse was Neil's best friend, not just his son. And I tell his story every Father's Day because it's a reminder to all of us who are fathers. How none of us are protected from this. Neil thought he was. Neil never ever thought that this would happen to him, but it did. And it's a reminder that there but for the grace of God, any of us could be victims. Could know a victim. So why sit on our hands and do nothing if we could do something?
“So let me finish, Madam President, by reading an excerpt from Neil Heslin's testimony that he gave to the United States Senate in February of 2013, two months after his son was shot, and I'll wrap up after I finish this page in half of his testimony.
“My name is Neil Heslin. Jesse Lewis was my son. He was a boy that loved life and lived it to the fullest. He was my best friend. On December 14, he lost his life at Sandy Hook Elementary because of a gun that nobody needs and nobody should have a right to have. I’m here to tell his story.
“I know what I am doing here today won’t bring my son back, but I hope that maybe if you listen to what I say today and you do something about it—maybe nobody else will have to experience what I have experienced. On December 14, Jesse got up and got ready for school. He was always excited to go to school. I remember on that day we stopped by Misty Vale Deli. It’s funny the things you remember. I remember Jesse got the sausage, egg and cheese he always gets, with some hot chocolate. And I remember the hug he gave me when I dropped him off. He just held me, and he rubbed my back. I can still feel that hug. And Jesse said “It’s going to be alright. Everything’s going to be okay, Dad.”
“Looking back it makes me wonder. What did he know? Did he have some idea about what was about to happen? But at the time I didn’t think much of it. I just thought he was being sweet. He was always being sweet like that. He was the kind of kid who used to leave me voice messages where he’d sing me happy birthday even when it wasn’t my birthday. I’d ask him about it, and he’d say “I just wanted to make you feel happy.” Half the time I felt like he was the parent and I was his son. He just had so much wisdom. He would know things, and I would have no idea how he knew. But whatever he said, it was always right.
“He would remember things we’d done and places we’d been that I had completely forgotten about. I used to think of him as a tiny adult. He had this inner calm and maturity that just made me feel so much better when I was around him. Other people felt it, too. Teachers would tell me about his laugh, how he made things at school more fun just by being there. If somebody was ever unhappy, Jesse would find a way to make him feel better. If he heard a baby crying he wouldn’t stop until he got the kid to smile. I remember him jiggling keys and standing on his head. Anything to make that crying baby feel better. Jesse just had this idea that you never leave people hurt. If you can help somebody, you do it. If you can make somebody feel better, you do it. If you can leave somebody a little better off, you do it.
“They tell me that’s how he died. I guess we still don’t know exactly what happened at that school. Maybe we’ll never know. But what people tell me is that Jesse did something different. When he heard the shooting, he didn’t run and hide. He started yelling. People disagree on the last thing he said. One person who was there says he yelled “run.” Another person said he told everybody to “run now.” Ten kids from my son’s class made it to safety. I hope to God something Jesse did helped them survive that day. What I know is that Jesse wasn’t shot in the back. He took two bullets. The first one grazed the side of his head, but that didn’t stop him from yelling. The other hit him in the forehead. Both bullets were fired from the front. That means the last thing my son did was look Adam Lanza straight in the face and scream to his classmates to run. The last thing he saw was that coward’s eyes.
“Jesse grew up with guns, just like I did. I started shooting skeet when I was eight years old. My dad was a vice president for years at a local gun club. He started taking me shooting when I was eight. When I turned ten he started taking me hunting. He taught me to respect guns, just like I taught Jesse. Jesse actually had an interest in guns. He had a bb gun. I watched over him like a hawk with that. I taught him gun safety. He knew it. He could recite it to you. He got it. And I think he would have got what we are talking about today. He liked looking at pictures of army guns, but he knew those weren’t for him. Those were for killing people.
“Before he died, Jesse and I used to talk about maybe coming to Washington someday. He wanted to go up the Washington monument. When we talked about it last year Jesse asked if we could come and meet the president. I’m a little cynical about politicians. But Jesse believed in you. He learned about you in school and he believed in you. I want to believe in you, too.
“I know you can’t give me Jesse back. Believe me, if I thought you could I’d be asking you for that. But I want to believe that you will think about what I told you here today. I want to believe you’ll think about it and then you’ll do something about it, whatever you can do to make sure no other father has to see what I’ve seen. You can start by passing legislation to take the senseless weapons out of the hands of people like Adam Lanza.
“Do something he said. Do something. Seven years later, we haven't done anything.
“And so we're down here on the floor tonight, begging our colleagues to put a bill on the floor. Amend it. Debate it Do whatever you want.
“But let's not stay silent any longer.
“I yield the floor.”