Last Tuesday night, three days after 49 people were brutally gunned down at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Sen. Chris Murphy reached a breaking point. The Connecticut Democrat, who was elected to the Senate just a month before the Sandy Hook shooting, is one of Congress’ most vocal anti-gun-violence crusaders — though, like those of all other gun-reform advocates, his efforts have largely come to naught. There have been 20 more mass shootings in the U.S. since 26 people, including 20 children, were killed at the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school in December 2012, according to a tally by Mother Jones (which defines a mass shooting as one in which three or more people are killed, not including the shooter); nine of those incidents have occurred in just the past 12 months.
“Every single time this happens, it is devastating,” the 42-year-old Murphy, one of the Senate’s youngest members, tells Rolling Stone, noting the “indescribable ripples of grief” Sandy Hook parents continue to feel.
On Wednesday morning, with a new appropriations vote looming in the Senate, and Republicans once again refusing to allow any debate on reigning in guns, Murphy announced he’d had enough — or #Enough, as he posted on Twitter. Dressed in a sharp blue suit and dress shoes, he began to talk — and talk — in a remarkable 15-hour filibuster intended to force the Senate to take up the issue of guns.
“As I was heading to the floor, I thought to myself, ‘What if this is a big failure and nobody pays attention?'” he says. Instead, Murphy, who had initial support from from fellow Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, was ultimately joined by nearly every other Democrat in the Senate, engaged in perhaps the country’s first national conversation on guns held by elected officials.
The filibuster, which ended at 2:30 the following morning, yielded a promise from Senate Republicans that they would allow a series of gun-safety measures — two of them sponsored by Democrats, and two by Republicans — to reach the floor. Of the two Democratic proposals, one, authored by Sen. Diane Feinstein, would block anyone on the terrorist watch list or any other federal terrorism databases from purchasing guns or explosives; the other, written by Murphy, would expand background checks to include guns purchased online or at gun shows. Republicans, who see the Feinstein measure as too broad, will introduce a competing bill, endorsed by the NRA, to put a 72-hour hold on all gun purchases by those on the terrorist watch list, and will also introduce a measure that rejects universal background checks and instead will focus on mental health.
All these bills are expected to fail — as similar measures have failed since 2013. Murphy, however, remains undeterred. “There is not something fundamentally different about the American DNA that causes us to have a level of gun violence that is 20 times that of other first-world nations,” he says. “It happens here because we choose to allow it to happen. We have a celebratory culture of guns, and the loosest firearms laws in the world.”
There were 40 Democratic senators who took part in your filibuster, some of whom spoke with such raw emotion, it made me wonder where they’d been all these years since Sandy Hook. Do you think there’s heightened anger and frustration among lawmakers over this issue?
Well — [sigh] — I think there’s been a lot of anger and frustration here for a long time. I just think it gets ratcheted up every time there’s another catastrophic mass shooting, and no response from Congress. Last weekend, we saw the worst mass shooting in the history of the country, and we all got back to Washington and were told that we were going to do nothing about it — we weren’t going to even debate a response. This clearly boiled people’s blood to a new level, and you’re right in that what you saw was very organic. The vast majority of senators who were coming down to the floor [to filibuster] only decided to speak up half an hour or an hour before.
I’m curious what Republicans say to you behind the scenes — have any GOP lawmakers approached you to express solidarity, even if they won’t vote with you?
In the wake of Sandy Hook, I know that there were Republicans who wanted to vote with us, but didn’t feel like they could break with the gun lobby. I don’t know that I can represent that I’ve had that exact conversation since Sunday, but none of us are complaining that Republicans are less moved by this slaughter than the Democrats are.
And yet, the GOP has blocked virtually every piece of gun legislation from even coming to the floor since Sandy Hook. Doesn’t that just strike you as incredible?
You know, it’s beyond my comprehension how people can be OK with doing absolutely nothing in the face of this slaughter. And by the way, this is not just about the mass shootings. There are 80 people that die every day from guns in this country. And the NRA and the gun lobby have been very successful in numbing people to this epidemic and this slaughter. A lot of what our filibuster was about was pricking the conscience of the Senate — to say that even if these proposals won’t stop every gun crime, we have a moral obligation to act and not accept that this is inevitable.
Given that so many Americans support both universal background checks and prohibiting those on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, why not introduce bills like this in every session the way the NRA does with its pro-gun bills? The proposal to close the “terror gap” was first made back in 2007 — and yet it took until December 2015 to really be brought up again, thanks to San Bernardino. Why not push this every single session?
We have pressed these issues multiple times. Unfortunately, the Republicans run the United States Senate, not the Democrats, and Republicans have the ability to block these proposals from coming before the body. We finally decided to use an exceptional tactic, the filibuster, to force their hand, and we were successful. But I’ve given 45 speeches on the floor in the short time that I’ve been in the Senate, pushing and cajoling my colleagues to bring [gun bills] to the floor. But listen, some of this is on us for not using every tool and tactic at our disposal. I think that my friends, having seen the success of this filibuster, maybe will be more willing to play hardball in order to force a discussion.
The NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, blames a culture of “political correctness” for the FBI’s failure to stop Omar Mateen before he shot up the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, not the easy accessibility of guns. Have you ever met with Cox?
I speak to his members all the time. After Sandy Hook, I held five town hall meetings in Connecticut on the issue of guns, and NRA members showed up to every single one of them. I have spoken with the NRA, but I don’t think there’s any use in negotiating with them because they are not representing gun owners in their lobbying efforts — they’re representing the gun industry. And look, it’s very simple: The model of the gun industry has changed. They used to sell one or two weapons to a large number of households back when over 50 percent of Americans owned guns. Today, the number of households that own weapons is dramatically falling, and so the gun industry’s profit margin is dependent on selling a large number of weapons to a small number of people. And so, to feed that new model, the NRA creates this paranoia about government in which they tell the story of an Obama administration that wants to confiscate your weapons, and thus you should arm yourself as quickly and as soon as possible.
And yet, many gun owners support tighter restrictions on gun sales.
I haven’t been afraid to talk about this with gun owners in Connecticut who have different views on different bills. There are lots of gun owners in Connecticut who aren’t real comfortable with bans on specific types of weapons. But there’s a consensus there amongst a lot of gun owners: They want the terrorist loophole to be closed. They want criminals to be prevented from buying guns wherever they buy them. But the NRA is never going to support any of these measures because they run counter to the industry’s very clear strategy of feeding paranoia about a secret agenda on behalf of the government to take everyone’s weapons.
So what’s it going to take? Will it require members of Congress to say, “We don’t care what the NRA says, we’re just going to vote our conscience?”
Yeah, and I think it will take gun owners standing up and saying, “Listen, the NRA doesn’t represent me on these issues.” [Just last week], you saw the development of a really powerful new lobbying organization of former and active military — hard-nosed generals [like David Petraeus] who have fired weapons and killed and ordered people killed by weapons who say, “My guys in the field carry these weapons, but I don’t think that civilians should, and I want to make damn sure that terrorists and criminals don’t get their hands on dangerous weapons.” So I think you’re starting to see gun owners step up and take ownership of this issue, and that’s important.
How did pro-gun advocates react to your filibuster? Any death threats?
My office processed 10,000 phone calls on Wednesday night, but the initial estimate was that it was running 90 to 95 percent in support of what we were doing. I know we were getting those calls [opposing the filibuster], but they were dwarfed by the number of people who support moving forward.
Do you think Donald Trump’s candidacy, and support for the NRA, has emboldened Democrats to coalesce more strongly around gun-control efforts?
Speaking for myself, I found Donald Trump’s comments about negotiating our safety with the NRA offensive, but he had nothing to do with why I decided to take a stand on Wednesday. I was going for that floor once it became clear that Republican leadership in the Senate was going to block the vote. When it comes to inaction on guns, we don’t need to point the finger at Donald Trump. We can point the finger at those currently elected public officials who have no interest in trying to end the scourge of gun violence.
You’ve worked closely with Michael Bloomberg’s Every Town for Gun Safety, which formed after Sandy Hook to push so-called common-sense measures like background checks. Where do you think the movement against gun violence stands now? Do you see any progress?
I don’t know whether we’re there yet. But we have more people, more power and more influence every day. Look who came down to the floor last Wednesday. It was senators from every political stripe; a lot of them used to have A ratings from the NRA. That was a powerful statement that our party has certainly changed into a core of activists and believers. But part of what Wednesday was also about was galvanizing a lot of people who had never thought about this issue before.
Rand Paul and Ted Cruz filibuster in sneakers. You stood on your feet for 15 hours in dress shoes! How did you pull that off?
Ha. Well, I had a lot of butterflies walking over to the floor. First of all, because it’s sort of out of character for me to do something like that, and secondly because I wasn’t sure how my body would respond. You can’t sit down, you can’t really move. You can kind of step away from your desk, but you can’t leave your position. So I mean, what happens if my back started to give out? What happens if I can’t hold it and have to go to the bathroom? But I’ll tell you I didn’t have to do as much work as I thought. I couldn’t sit down, but I also didn’t have to read the dictionary, or Dr. Seuss, because there were 40 other people on the floor willing to talk and ask me questions. So I was having a 15-hour conversation with 40 of my friends, and that made it go by pretty fast.
What was the thing that surprised you the most?
As I was heading onto the floor, I thought to myself, “What if this is a total failure where nobody pays attention? What if none of my colleagues joined me?” The 15 hours was a constant surprise in that every single one of my colleagues came down to spend time with us. And over the course of it, millions of people around the country tuned in. I don’t know, I guess I shouldn’t think of that as a surprise — but it was pretty amazing to see how everybody responded to something that nobody knew was going to happen at the beginning of the day.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.