Why This Senator Has Hope for Tackling Gun Violence – Even After Sandy Hook

Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy discusses America's mass-shooting epidemic in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre

Sen. Chris Murphy Credit: Tim Williams/AP

In the aftermath of Sunday's mass shooting in Las Vegas, Republican leaders have once again deflected calls for voting on new gun control legislation. But one of the Senate's leading progressive voices on the issue, Chris Murphy, argues Democrats should take the long view and prepare for a battle in the 2018 midterm elections.

Murphy rejects the despair felt by many proponents of gun control who argue that if nothing was done after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – which left 26 dead, including 20 young students – then nothing can be done to loosen the gun lobby's grip on Congress.

Rolling Stone talked to the junior senator from Connecticut Tuesday about how Congress might respond (or not) to the Las Vegas massacre, the filibuster he and other Senate Democrats participated in last year, and why he has hope that his party can defeat the NRA's agenda – which includes relaxing background checks on silencer purchases and allowing people with concealed-carry permits to carry weapons in states where the practice is against the law.

You represent Newtown. After that tragedy, what goes through your mind when you learn about a mass shooting like the one in Las Vegas?
I think about the fact that those parents in Newtown have to relive what they went through every time another shooting happens. That community is still not recovered, and there's no way that those parents will ever be whole. But to have to go through that over and over again – every time one of these [shootings] happens is a repeat trauma that none of them deserve.

Is there any advice you'd give to the families of those affected in Las Vegas?
I certainly can't. I mean, what I did, I reached out to [Democratic Nevada Sens. Catherine] Cortez Masto and [Dean] Heller that morning, and finally caught up with Catherine just hours ago. My advice is more to policymakers as to how they can be useful and helpful. I can't imagine ever giving advice to a family.

Everyone thought Newtown would be a turning point. Twenty-six lives lost, 20 of them little kids, and Congress showed inaction on the issue – a lot of people have lost hope. What's your message to those people?
There's this interesting line of argument which goes: If things didn't change after Sandy Hook, why would they ever change? I totally don't buy that. I think this is a long-term political fight. The gun lobby had a 30-year head start on us. The modern anti-gun-violence movement is really only four-and-a-half years old. We win more than we lose when we fight, but we only have the resources to engage in a handful of fights every year.

So in 2016, there were four referendums on state ballots to tighten gun laws. Three of them passed. The anti-gun-violence movement had three targeted Senate races, all tough Senate races, and the anti-gun-violence candidate – two Democrats and one Republican – won in all three of those races. As we grow, and we're able to fight in more places, we'll win more. We just don't have the breadth and the reach that the gun lobby has.

I don't think anyone should expect that we would start winning in the first few years of the modern anti-gun-violence movement.

With Republicans in control of Congress, what's your priority right now?
People should remember that in the 2000s, the gun lobby got a lot passed. They got riders added to appropriations bills, they got immunity for the gun industry, they successfully managed the expiration of the assault weapons ban. It would be no small victory to play successful defense for the next few years. The NRA clearly thinks they should get something from the election of Donald Trump and Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. If the end result of the next year was that silencers did not become legal, and the national right to carry a concealed weapon did not become law, that would be a victory for us and a big defeat for the gun lobby.

What do you think can be done to defeat the NRA and the broader gun lobby, and to loosen their grip on this Congress?
You gotta have more electoral wins. This is all about the ballot box right now. I am an unapologetic believer that this is going to be won outside of Washington, not inside of Washington. Like I said, in 2016, the three top targeted races were New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania, and we won all three. Republican members of Congress know that we don't have the resources to play everywhere, so they still stick pretty close to the NRA because they're more worried about a primary threat than they are about the anti-gun-violence movement beating them in a general election. But we're growing. Every year our reach is getting bigger, our membership organizations are getting larger. I just don't think that democracy allows for 90 percent of the American public not to get their way – it just takes a little while for the political system to catch up.

"I just don't think that democracy allows for 90 percent of the American public not to get their way."

What does your ideal gun control package look like? And what do you say to critics who say it's "too soon" to talk about policy?
The idea that there should be a waiting period to talk about policy after a mass shooting is a device employed by the gun industry. Eighty people die from guns [each day in the U.S.]. [Ed. note: The nonpartisan group Everytown for Gun Safety estimates the number at 93 deaths per day, based on CDC data.] There's been an actual mass shooting, on average, every day [in 2017] in this country. So if you didn't talk about changing the laws after a mass shooting, you would never talk about changing the laws. It's not my fault that the mass media only seems to pay attention to this epidemic when it all happens at once in a place like Las Vegas, or Orlando, or Sandy Hook. When you talk about what the package should be, the other trap that the gun lobby wants us to fall into is to only talk about policy change that will affect the last mass shooting that's in the press.

Again, on Sunday, we saw the worst mass shooting in [modern U.S.] history in Las Vegas. But 80 other people died that day from gun violence. And they deserve a solution just as much as the families in Las Vegas. I believe we should still be focussed on background checks. Lots of people will say, well, background checks wouldn't have prevented Las Vegas. Well, they might have prevented a dozen other murders that happened that day, and they are still, empirically, the most important intervention to stop gun violence across the country.

I think you should be careful not to try to tailor our agenda, try to be constantly changing our agenda to address the last mass shooting.

Last year, you and your fellow senators filibustered for 15 hours, House Democrats did their sit-in on the House floor – but it seems like your party is a little less vocal about this issue this Congress. What's changed, or is that a fair assessment?
I don't think it's necessarily a fair assessment. The exceptional tactics like the filibuster or a sit-in lose value if you do them once a year or twice a year. Orlando was a breaking point for many of us, and I think that we're no less committed to the cause – it's just that there are some tactics that lose value if you repeat them too often. I said then that the focus had to be on outside [of Washington]. So I've been in communication with anti-gun-violence groups over the last 24 hours, and we need to make sure that they keep on growing.

It seems like the NRA is on the offense in this Congress, which is a change from the past couple years.
I think that was my point: It stands to reason that the NRA would be on the offense given the fact that Republicans control everything. I think that it would be a big story if we were able to stop every single NRA priority from becoming law. Remember, [with the NRA-backed SHARE Act,] they're not talking about legalizing silencers – they're talking about taking background checks off of silencers. Silencers are legal in this country. You have to get a permit and a background check, but you can get a silencer. What they want to do is remove background checks from silencers. It would be a total slap to the face to the families in Las Vegas if [Congress] were to pass an extreme bill that removes background checks from silencers.

The proponents of that bill want to have it both ways. What they'll tell you is that silencers don't eliminate the sound, they only muffle it. And so you would still be able to hear the gunshots from the Mandalay [Bay hotel, from which Stephen Paddock is reported to have shot festival-goers in Las Vegas]; then why do you want a silencer? They also make the argument that you need silencers in order to significantly muffle the sound of the gun, to protect your hearing. The proponents of this are nakedly hypocritical. On one side, they argue that the silencer is so significantly muffled as to add to public safety. On the other hand, they try to argue that it doesn't really change the sound of the gun, so that you could continue to know where the firearm is coming from.

What's your plan to make this issue a part of the 2018 midterm elections?
We're looking at states where we can bring in the next set of referendums, and we'll watch how [Congress] members respond to this tragedy. I think it'll be a big political liability if Republican members in swing states do nothing in the wake of this evil. I think voters will remember that, and we will have more resources to run ads [and] to open up campaign headquarters in 2018 than we did in 2016.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said this morning that the common thread in all these mass shootings is mental health. What do you think of that?
It's a cop-out. Our mental health system is broken, and we should fix it. But America doesn't have any greater rate of mental illness than any other country. You can only explain America's gun violence problem through guns, because mental illness doesn't automatically lead to violence, and it doesn't lead to violence anywhere else but America.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.