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Sen. Chris Murphy on the Gun Debate: ‘No Parent Can Hide From This Any Longer’

A conversation with the Connecticut senator about the realities and challenges of passing meaningful gun legislation

Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., questions Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a hearing on diplomacy and national security on July 25th 2018

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is fighting for gun reform in the senate

Susan Walsh/AP/REX/Shutterstock

For the first time since the Clinton era, Congress has advanced gun control measures Last week, House Democrats passed legislation to require universal background checks for gun sales, closing loopholes that allow one-in-five guns to be sold without a completed check.

After decades of frustration — and of free rein by the NRA in Washington — gun control is having a moment. To gauge the significance of these (still-partial) victories, Rolling Stone spoke to Sen. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who is lead sponsor of the Senate’s companion background-check bill.

Murphy, 43, served three terms representing Connecticut’s 5th district, which includes the city of Newtown. He was elected to the senate shortly before the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre seven years ago and never stopped fighting for the victims’ families, becoming one of the anti-gun-violence movement’s most vigorous supporters in elected office. Murphy sports an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association, whose scare-monger tactics, he admits, make him fear for his own safety.

Why was the action in the House last week significant?
The House voted to make background checks universal, meaning they will cover all gun sales in the country, whether they happen in a gun store or online. It’s a measure that research tells us will save tens of thousands of lives.

This is groundbreaking. It’s been since [the Assault Weapons ban of] 1994 that Congress passed anything like this to tighten our nation’s gun laws. And it’s a sign of the maturity of the anti-gun-violence movement. This measure failed in 2013, in the wake of Sandy Hook. And this year it passed with a big bipartisan majority. It’s a sign that it’s not a question of whether universal background checks are going to become law. Now it’s just a question of when.

You’ve offered the companion measure in the Senate. Why is this a core issue for you?
I’m an example of what’s wrong, and what’s right, with the anti-gun-violence movement. I didn’t work on this issue at all before it happened in my backyard, in Newtown. But since Newtown I’ve devoted every single day to trying to pass laws to make sure that gun violence is no longer a reality, no matter where you live in this country.

And the movement that I’m a part of is why we were able to pass this bill last week. It’s not that people just woke up and figured out that background checks save lives. It’s because we’ve built a political infrastructure around anti-gun-violence measures. I’m thrilled that we’ve made this much progress. At the same time, a couple Thursdays ago, there were 12 people shot in Baltimore. That’s more people than were shot in Japan in all of 2017. So we still have a long way to go.

How can normal people have an impact in this debate?
To join the moment, you actually have to join the movement. The groups are the ones that are now household names: Giffords, Moms Demand Action, Everytown. Overnight, in February 2018, one teenager from Parkland acquired more Twitter followers than the NRA. That’s how quickly this movement is growing right now. You have more people who are single-issue voters to pass stronger gun laws than you have single-issue voters who are voting to weaken gun laws.

That’s what happened in 2018. We became more powerful in the gun industry in 2018 because we had more people than they did. I ran a campaign last year to target eight races where you had an NRA “A”-rated incumbent and in a swing district with a Democrat who was supporting tougher gun laws. These were all swing districts that could have gone either way. We raised about a million dollars. And all eight of them won. I don’t know what could be a better advertisement for candidates to run proudly on the issue of anti-gun-violence than the “NR8” campaign that we ran in 2018.

The last time the senate had a chance to vote on a background check bill, after you staged a 15-hour filibuster in 2016, it got only 44 votes. Why has the senate stood so firmly against public opinion on this issue?
This has never been about public opinion. Public opinion is now wildly in favor of background checks — at 95, 97 percent. But 80 percent of Americans have always supported expanded background checks. This is always been about the political power of the gun industry. In 2013 they were ready for those parents from Sandy Hook. They took ‘em down. We were weak, and they were strong. And we realized very quickly that we had to build a political movement that was just as strong as theirs.

Will your bill get a vote in the senate?
The odds are against that. [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell has zero interest in making his Republican senators choose between their constituents and the NRA. The Republican party and the gun lobby are brother and sister. And it’s really hard to break up that historic alliance. That’s why we have trouble passing this stuff, because the gun lobby is still so incredibly influential within the Republican Party. They used to be influential in the Democratic party. When I got the Congress, there were Democrats, left and right, who were so proud of their NRA endorsement. That’s not the case anymore.

McConnell will do everything in his power to trying to avoid a vote. Our work now is to train the growing power of the anti-gun violence movement on the 10 or 15 senators who can change his mind — senators who are up for reelection in 2020 or 2022 and know that being against background checks — or being against a vote on background checks — is really bad politics.

The NRA has taken a dark turn in recent years. The latest American Rifleman magazine ran the headline “Target Practice” over a picture of Nancy Pelosi and Gabby Giffords. What does that picture tell us?
The NRA doesn’t really represent gun owners. It represents the gun industry. And today, the gun industry survives because it sells a ton of expensive weapons to a tiny group of Americans. So the NRA is in the business of whipping up a very small group of Americans to believe that their government is coming to take their weapons; thus, they have to buy more and more. Now there’s a certain percentage of those people who are true collectors and hobbyists. But a lot of them are buying weapons because they believed all this B.S. from the gun lobby that Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama want to get your weapons. And pictures like that just feed into the scare tactics about proponents of stronger gun laws that have helped sell a lot of guns.

But it seems to go beyond scaring when the NRA runs the headline “Target Practice.”
Yeah.

Some are going now calling the NRA a “terrorist organization”; is that a step too far?=
I think they knew what they were doing with that picture. And it obviously crosses a line. I don’t know that I’d go that far in terms of what to call them. But the NRA is treading on really dangerous ground when they intentionally attempt to whip their supporters up into this angry fury. Obviously, I have a very personal stake in this. I’m a father of two young boys and I’m more protective of them than most, because I see pictures like that in circulation and I wonder what that means for my safety.

At my children’s school they have posters up, describing lockdown drills to deal with an active shooter. They talk about creating a “time barrier” — I guess the idea is that you delay the shooter long enough to give the cops time to arrive, to limit the body count. What advice to you have for parents who live in this reality right now, and don’t want that fear to be ever-present for their kids?
Part of what has changed the politics around this issue is the millions of parents who have had a child come home and explain to them the combination of horror and confusion that comes with a lockdown drill. No parent can hide from this any longer. Because there’s a trauma that comes simply from being part of one of those drills. There’s no escape from this epidemic. And that is part what is driving more parents to become gun-violence voters.

The frightening reality is that there’s not a lot you can do to protect yourself from somebody with a military-style, semi-automatic weapon. I’ve supported major investments in school safety. I like that my kids’ public school takes safety seriously. But I also know that those weapons have such power that if somebody wants to do a lot of damage with one of them, there are very few protocols that will stop that.

That’s why you’ve got to invest in public policy. You can’t solve this problem by just hardening our infrastructure. So that’s why, as a parent, it scares me to death that people in Washington don’t take my kids’ safety seriously. Those AR-15s are the tools of copycat killers. It’s not a coincidence that they keep getting picked up by these mass shooters. These mass shooters study how they can be most effective at killing as many people as quickly as possible. And until we get those things off the street, there’s no investment in school safety that you can make to make your kids truly safe.

There’s a link between gun violence and domestic violence. When one of these events unfolds, we often discover that the shooter previously hurt a woman. Should this be a bigger part of our public conversation about gun violence?
It should be. But it’s frankly symptomatic of a larger reality. What the data tells you is that a gun in the house increases the chances that you’ll be killed in a domestic violence incident by an extraordinary ratio. The broader reality is this that having a gun in your house is more likely to get you killed than it is to save your life. The most important mythology that the NRA proffers is that you’re safer if you buy a gun. That’s just not true. The gun is much more likely to kill you — to accidentally go off, to be used in suicide — than it is to be used to kill an intruder.

Let me ask you about the NRA’s connections to Russia. You had this organization, which has wrapped itself in the American flag for generations, engaging in an unsavory relationship with a delegation from Russia that leveraged the NRA as a conduit to the Trump campaign. How do you contextualize that?
The Russians are opportunists. They look for soft spots and and vulnerabilities. The NRA was a vulnerable organization, and they still are today. They were hemorrhaging members, they were losing money, their approval ratings were sinking. I don’t know the true financial connection between Russia and the NRA, but I know that the NRA would have been a very familiar mark to Russian operatives: A group that had a lot less money, a lot less friends than it did a couple years ago — and was searching for new friends and new resources.

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