Senator Chris Murphy on Practical Ways Citizens Can Support Gun Control, and the Anger That Drove Him To Lead the Filibuster

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Chris Murphy and other Democratic senators call for gun control legislation in the wake of the mass shooting in an Orlando LGBT nightclub on June 16, 2016. 

Sadly and surreally, there has been so much gun violence in the United States over the past few weeks that it’s been difficult keeping this interview with Senator Chris Murphy (D, Conn.) -- who made headlines by leading a pro-gun-control filibuster in the Senate in June -- current. No less than four major incidents of gun violence have occurred since the initial interview took place earlier this month. 

Obviously, the issue of gun control, and this 42-year-old Senator’s strong stance in favor of it, is growing more topical by the day. There have been 23 mass shootings since December of 2012, when 26 people, including 20 children, were killed in Newtown in Senator Murphy’s home state of Connecticut. And after 49 people were murdered in yet another mass shooting in Orlando, Florida on June 12, and Republicans yet again refused to address gun control in the Senate, Murphy reached his limit. He led a 15-hour-long filibuster that, at the very least, brought some long-overdue attention to the issue and many Americans’ strong support of it. 

Murphy’s commitment to gun control remains steadfast, and he’s fully aware that the filibuster was just one step forward. “Ultimately I know that this is a long-term fight to ultimately beat the gun lobby,” he says, “but our filibuster and the action it inspired in the House of Representatives helped bring tens of thousands more people across the country into this effort.” 

(For much more on the Orlando tragedy and Billboard’s open letter to Congress to stop gun violence, visit billboard.com/orlando.)

What can people do to keep gun control front and center in between flashpoints like mass shootings and the tragedy in Dallas? 

The NRA built up a political juggernaut over the course of 20 years, and there are a number of anti-gun-violence groups that are gaining strength by the day, from Moms Demand Action to Gabby Giffords' group, Americans for Responsible Solutions. The most important thing that people can do is to sign up with one or all of these groups and be part of a collective push for action. The NRA became powerful because they have one of the biggest user bases and membership lists and email databases in the country, so we've got to help our anti-gun-violence groups become as powerful as the NRA. People also need to be focused on action at the local level as well as the national level. There are lots of states where citizens can push for referendums, which allow you to go around the political process: That's another means of change. This fall, there will be referendums in Maine and Nevada to expand background checks, and likely more coming in other states, so there are all sorts of ways to get active at the local level as well. 

How does the tragedy in Dallas relate to the larger conversations about gun control? 
I’m hoping that this is a moment where people in this country can come together and talk about the common-sense steps we can take to stop these shootings from happening. There’s a possibility for this nation to retreat into corners, and we can’t do that. We’ve got to unite behind the idea that there are things that we can do to try to stem this rising tide of gun violence – there are things that we can do to try to fight back against the hatred and the bias that sometimes lead people to do unthinkable things. These are tough times but we can’t turn this into a political slugfest. We’ve got to find ways to come together. There’s tragedy left and right today -- but there’s also tragedy in Washington when we do nothing to try and make sure that these epidemics are curtailed by smart public policy and smart investments.

Do you think that Jerry Brown's recent moves in California, where he was able to get some gun-control measures passed that Congress hasn't been able to -- do you think that's a model for other states or an outlier? 

For the time being, there's going to be a limit to the number of state legislatures that are willing to take on the NRA. Blue and purple states will have success in passing expanded background checks and bans on military-style weapons, but in red states it'll be difficult. But referendums are a way to go around local political processes that are owned by the gun lobby. So I don't know that the California measures will be a model for every state, but it does show that state can make a big difference even in the face of Republican inaction in Washington. 

Do you feel like the filibuster was effective? Did it accomplish at least some of what you hoped it would? 

Our filibuster succeeded well beyond my expectations. Ultimately I know that this is a long-term fight to ultimately beat the gun lobby in Washington, but our filibuster and the action it inspired in the House of Representatives helped bring tens of thousands more people across the country into this effort, and it helped give courage to Democrats that this is a winning political issue. People were surprised this week that Hillary Clinton was campaigning on the issue of guns in a place like North Carolina. It wasn't surprising to me, because the issue of expanded background checks is a political winner in every state. All we needed was the courage to go out and sell it. 

Why do you think the gun lobby is so much more effective at getting out its message, as deceptive as some may feel that message is, than gun-control organizations? 

I think you have to understand the power of the NRA's stamp of approval within the Republican party. The NRA endorsement means more than just a statement about your position on guns; it has become a proxy for a broader set of conservative values. So Republicans want the NRA endorsement because it's a way for them to communicate that they're a true conservative. That’s a challenge for us because we've got to find a way for Republicans who want to vote for things like expanded background checks to communicate their conservative bona fides in a way other than seeking out the approval of the gun lobby. So I think that the NRA's success is that they've built a brand that communicates a set of conservative values that extend beyond simply positioning on guns. 

So it’s become a sort of conservative litmus test? 

Yes. These days, to win a Republican primary, you have to be pretty anti-government, and there's nobody that's more virulently anti-government than the gun lobby: They're arguing for citizens to arm themselves for future rebellion. So a way to communicate how much you hate the government is to parade around your NRA endorsement. That's why that NRA endorsement has become much more powerful than just a verification of your positions on gun laws. 

Does the NRA have that strong a hold on every single Republican candidate? 

Well, their grip is loosening. There were eight Republican senators that were willing to cross the NRA and vote for the compromise on stopping terrorists from getting guns. Now, eight may not sound like a lot, but that's double the number that were willing to vote with us on the issue of background checks, so you're seeing more and more Republicans become willing to break with the NRA, and that's a positive trend line. It's not enough, but we're heading in the right direction. 

So their hold on Republicans is almost more about optics than about money?  

Yeah, I think that it's messaging, right? The NRA endorsement has become a means of communicating something very important to Republican candidates. Their money isn't insignificant, but it's not the source of their strength. 

Do you feel things are moving in a positive direction for gun control?

I think five or ten years from now, you're going to look back on the last month as a watershed moment in the history of the anti-gun-violence movement. I think this was the time in which this issue became a net winner for us electorally. This is the time in which Republicans started to be willing to break from the NRA. This is the time that Democrats really got courage on this issue. So I certainly can't predict the future, but I think we've turned a corner when it comes to the very long and arduous fight to pass these anti-gun-violence measures. 

Do you have any thoughts on why Sandy Hook wasn't that moment? 

I do. I mean, it's hard for me to imagine why Congress wasn't inspired into action in the face of 20 first graders lying dead in their classrooms in Sandy Hook. But I think the anti gun violence movement was essentially asleep from 1994 to 2012, and during that time, the gun groups built a political juggernaut. And so we simply weren't ready for the vote in 2013. We had been organizing with purpose for only a few months, and we weren't powerful enough to beat the gun lobby. We're still not powerful enough, and we need a few election cycles to clear out the senators and representatives who are continuing to vote against the wishes of their constituents and with the gun lobby. But I think that's the reason: it was mismatched political power in 2013. 

Why was gun control asleep for those years? 

There was this mythology built up after the 1994 election -- that it caused Democrats to think this issue was a political loser. So Democrats passed the assault-weapons ban in ‘94 and a handful of political pundits blamed their defeat on the crime bill votes. That's not the true story, that's not actually why candidates lost in 1994 in House and Senate races, but it became part of the storyline. And so I think after 1994 Democrats got really scared of this issue, and murders were still at epidemic rates across the country. It wasn't until Sandy Hook that people finally woke up to the fact that our laws were in fact putting millions of Americans at risk. 

Do you have any thoughts as to why terrorism seems to be a more motivating factor in leading people to support gun control than Sandy Hook and school shootings would be? 

I think people feel helpless in the face of terrorism. Maybe they feel a little bit more control over their ability to avoid other types of gun crimes. And listen, terrorism is occupying the news 24/7 in a way that murders in Chicago or New Orleans or Bridgeport aren't, so people are afraid of terrorists in part because they're watching them every night on TV. 

[Excuses himself briefly to vote.]

Well, that was interesting. I just walked out on the Senate floor to have a shower of one-dollar bills rain down on us from the gallery. Some woman was protesting a vote we were taking on genetically modified foods and claiming, I guess, that people who supported it were bought off by the chemical companies. So there's now hundreds of one-dollar bills on the floor of the United States Senate.

I guess no Senators want to be seen picking them up?

They're hoping somebody's gonna come and take them. 

We interviewed Congressman Scott Peters [who led the effort to Periscope the filibuster after Republican leader Paul Ryan ordered CSPAN’s cameras turned off] last week and he said that he felt a lot of sympathy for Paul Ryan for the difficult position he's in. And you said that you're sure Republicans are just as horrified by these shootings as Democrats are. So why aren't their actions reflecting that? 

There is a certain belief within the Republican party that if you arm everybody, the good guys will eventually shoot the bad guys. Right? So there is a sort of gun-control Darwinism to many Republicans' way of thinking, in which if you arm everyone, eventually the right guys will get shot. So some of them will say, "Yeah, we do deeply care about what happened in Sandy Hook, and our answer is to arm all of the children, parents, and teachers who walk through those school hallways.” So there aren't guerrilla tactics that are going to change the mindset of somebody who thinks that the answer to school shootings is a lot more guns in schools. 

Have you considered more forceful, more graphic, more confrontational tactics? 

I don't know what can be more graphic than the picture of little Dylan Hockley on the floor of the Senate in all of his six-year-old glory months before being shot to death by a semi-automatic military style weapon. I mean, I don't know why people haven't been moved already by what's happened in Sandy Hook and Chicago and Orlando, so I guess I'm always open to new tactics. I'm just not convinced that we've failed to communicate the gravity of these events. 

What do you think the NRA's real motivations are here? Do their motivations go beyond guns and into obtaining political power, or is there mostly interest in money through weapons sales? 

I guess it's hard for me to read into their motivations; I know that the bottom line of the gun industry is a driving factor behind the positions the gun lobby takes. I know that their hatred of Barack Obama is a deep motivating factor behind the positions they take. I'm not the right person to psychoanalyze the gun industry. 

The measures you're pushing for, even if they were enacted, would only be chipping away at the bigger problems. The bigger problems are proliferation of handguns and illegal gun trade. Do you look at background checks and assault weapons bans as an incremental step towards further restrictions on gun sales? 

Everything we're talking about is a partial solution to the problem, but there's lots of people who say, "Well, if you can't fix the entirety of the problem at once, why do it?" That's ridiculous. Background checks would make a difference; closing the terror gap would make a difference; starting research on gun violence would make a difference. But you can't wait until the entirety of the Congress agrees on everything in order to start doing something. Expanding background checks to Internet sales and gun shows wouldn't be incremental change -- it would be fundamental change. You have 40 percent of all gun sales in this country happening outside of brick and mortar gun stores today. All of commerce has transitioned to the Internet. The same goes for gun sales. So you dramatically cut down on the number of illegal guns on the streets, the number of criminals that have guns, and save thousands of lives if you expand background checks. 

Is there anything I haven't touched on that you would like to get out there? 

Well, to sort of tie together the motivational question for the gun lobby, why does it oppose every single change to the nation's gun laws, no matter how minor or how reasonable? They're the only lobbying group in the country that brooks absolutely no compromise on issues in their atmosphere. And my conclusion is this: The gun lobby wants you to believe that the only thing that can make you safe is a gun. They fear that people will start to believe that laws and rules will keep them safe, because [if] they think that laws and rules will keep them safe, then they maybe don't need a stockpile of $5,000 assault rifles. So the gun lobby has figured out that by opposing everything, they can make a straight-faced argument that the only thing that can keep you safe is to arm yourself. There's no law that can keep you safe, only as [NRA CEO] Wayne LaPierre terms it, a personal defense plan can keep you safe. And so I think that's really the foundation of the gun lobby's motivation, is to oppose any and all legislation as a means of selling this image of a world in which only the firearm by your bedside can keep you safe from harm. 

In the face of all this, how do you keep your cool? 

Maybe I don't portray my anger in a way that other people do, but I don't think that I could've had the stamina to stay on the Senate floor for 15 hours if I wasn't angry. That action wasn't motivated by sheer political calculus. It was motivated by my deep anger at what had happened in Orlando and the planned silence that was to come from Congress.