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Chris Murphy: “Since Sandy Hook I’ve Been Trying to Make Up for Lost Time”

The Connecticut senator on the gun bill, the push to codify same-sex marriage, and media incentives to be outrageous.
September 15, 2022
The Only Grownup In Washington | Not My Party with Tim Miller

[Editor’s note: For this week’s Not My Party, Tim interviewed Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in his office in Washington. A transcript of the full interview appears below.]

Tim Miller: I’m going to start out with a pretty tough one. Toddlers, when they don’t get what they want, throw a tantrum. Grownups, when they don’t get what they want, work to find a solution. Why are there so few grownups in Washington?

Chris Murphy: This place has really become a little bit dystopian in that there’s a whole incentive structure now to be outrageous, to not cooperate. You get booked on the TV shows if you say outrageous things; you get more people clicking on your videos if you’re outrageous; you get more followers on social media. The problem is, when we cooperate, there’s not as much of a market for that. It’s not as interesting. And so sometimes we’ll pass really important, big, meaningful pieces of legislation and they’ll get almost no attention because these days the only thing that often gets attention is the times that we’re yelling at each other. We’re at fault for following that incentive structure, but the media ecosystem out there unfortunately feeds the appetite for dysfunction.

Miller: I’m trying to change the incentive structure by giving you credit on the gun bill here, but just before we get into that, what else can be done to change this, to change the fact that you get more attention for a troll-y tweet than you do for working with the other side to get something meaningful done?

Murphy: A lot of folks that are engaged in this bickering are trying to get clicks and media bookings, but a lot of them are searching for donors because the donors come from the hard left or the hard right. So if we got private fundraising out of politics, if we just decided that we were all going to pitch in a little bit of tax money to pay for campaigns, you’d actually disincentivize a lot of this infighting. The way that House districts are drawn are really horrible. You’ve got all these districts that have only Republicans or only Democrats, and so you get very few House members that get sent to Washington who get rewarded for compromise. That’s not as big a problem in the Senate. It’s why most of these compromises actually start in the Senate. But the way that House districts are drawn unfortunately incentivizes a lot of this bickering.

Miller: I want to talk about the backstory of how we got to the gun bill. So you represent Connecticut. You’ve seen the tragedy at Sandy Hook happen there. . . . Talk about how that impacted you and radicalized you really into wanting to act on this.

Murphy: Sandy Hook happened right after I was elected to the United States Senate. I was actually with my two kids, then 4 years old and 1 years old. We were getting ready to go down to New York City to see the Christmas decorations and I got word that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and then quickly thereafter I learned that kids were involved. I literally left my kids on the train platform with my wife and I went straight to Newtown to find out that it was in fact twenty kids. I was at the time about to be sworn in as the youngest member of the United States Senate out of a hundred. I had two young kids and Sandy Hook changed my life, both as the representative for Sandy Hook but also as one of the few parents of young kids [in the Senate]. I knew that I had to step up and try to get laws passed that reduced the likelihood that anything like that would ever happen again.

But I also came to grips with the fact that I should have been working on this long before Sandy Hook. I grew up in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford. Hartford has been violent for decades and I grew up a stone’s throw from some of the most violent neighborhoods in the Northeast. And yet I didn’t work on gun violence until I had exposure to a mass shooting of white children. I feel really terrible. I feel awful about that. And so I feel like since Sandy Hook I’ve been trying to make up for lost time because I think that I should have been working on the issue of gun violence long before it happened to white children in Newtown because it’s been happening to black children in cities in Connecticut for a long time.

Miller: It happened to everybody. I feel that way. I grew up next to Columbine. That was mostly white children, but that . . . almost two decades prior to what happened at Sandy Hook. Now we’re fast forwarding a decade [after Sandy Hook]. What are the lives like for the parents and the families that lost these kids and how did they feel after the bill got passed? Talk to us about how that is impacting your work.

Murphy: A lot of the families from Sandy Hook have dedicated part of their lives to advocacy, have decided that they are going to try to get laws passed to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other kids. And they are not interested in the perfect being the enemy of the good. They want to get something done. And so it was really amazing to have some of these families from Sandy Hook here in Washington the night that the bill passed, and to have even more of them here when President Biden signed the bill into law. For a lot of these Sandy Hook families, this bill that we passed is a small way to honor their children’s death by making sure that it’s less likely that this happens in the future.

Miller: Let’s just talk about the bill itself—if you had to sum up what elements of the bill you think will make the most difference going forward to people who don’t really know all the details.

Murphy: What we’re trying to do here is not ban weapons, not make it harder for law-abiding citizens to get their hands on a gun, but to target this population that seems to be doing all of the violence. And let’s be honest, it does tend to be younger men. And so that’s what we’re doing in this bill. We’ve got a provision to help states pass laws that can temporarily take weapons away from individuals who are threatening violence. We’ve got a provision in this bill that puts a waiting period on gun purchases for younger buyers, including a check-in with the police department. We’ve got a lot of money in this bill for mental health, particularly in schools, to try to wrap services around young people whose brains are breaking who might be contemplating violence.

This bill doesn’t go as far as I would like, but this bill is very targeted to try to say, “Listen, there does seem to be a very specific profile of the mass shooter and if we can target that individual with services and keep guns out of their hands at the most vulnerable apocalyptic moments in their lives, then we can prevent some of these shootings.”

Miller: Let’s talk about my hobbyhorse that got pulled out of the bill, which is the 21-year age limit. An 19-year-old in this country can buy an AR but cannot buy a raspberry White Claw. This seems insane. What was the reason you think that, that part couldn’t get done in the final package?

Murphy: A long time ago, we made a decision in this country that the primary danger to public safety was handguns—pistols. So we said, “You can’t buy those until you’re 21 years old.” At the time, we didn’t see any threat from so-called “long guns” because those were basically used for hunting. The long gun is transformed. It is now the AR-15. It is now the assault weapon. And so all we really are seeking to do here is just update the law, say, “Today, the primary danger to public safety for many people is the AR-15.” And so we should just say those 18-year-olds that can’t buy a pistol today also can’t buy the AR-15.

The problem is, that gun, the AR-15, has become a huge profit center for the gun lobby. And so more than anything else, the gun industry cares about being able to continue to sell as many AR-15s and AR-15 variants as possible. So when we tried to raise the age to 21 for long guns, or at least for assault weapons, the gun industry drew a line in the sand and we couldn’t get enough Republicans to join us. I think we will eventually be able to overcome that hurdle, but right now, the gun lobby is just not willing to allow for restrictions on that gun.

Miller: Greg Abbott said last week, I think he’s using this as an excuse, the idea that he doesn’t think that, that would pass a Supreme Court test—age limits on these guns. That doesn’t seem to make sense to me since, as you said, we already do have an age limit on handguns. But what is your sense? What would be your response to that, that it is not constitutional to pass a 21 age limit on guns?

Murphy: There’s no sign that age limits on gun purchases is unconstitutional or will be judged to be unconstitutional. That’s a red herring being used by Republicans and the industry to stop this legislation from being passed.

Miller: Politics of this: Democrats for a long time have been scared to talk about this issue. You’re an exception. But to me this seems like a winner. I don’t think that most suburban moms out there, most swing voters, want every kid in their high school to be able to purchase an AR online. Is this something that Democrats can use politically and go on offense and maybe pressure Republicans on?

Murphy: For thirty years, the whole political establishment has been under this belief that talking about keeping people safe from gun violence is politically hurtful. That’s just wrong. It was a myth made up by the gun industry to scare people away from talking about things supported by 90 percent of the American public—70, 80, 90 percent of Americans think that you should raise the age to 21, think that you should have universal background checks, think that you should take these high-capacity magazines out of circulation. The majority of Republicans think that we should do these things. And so I think what you’re seeing in the wake of the passage of this bill is a ton of public support for it from Democrats, independents, Republicans. And I believe that that’s going to make everybody here be more willing to support these kind of changes in the future.

Miller: So you actually talked to your Republican colleagues, crazy thing, to try to get them to support this bill. Is your sense that some of them might be willing to go even further than this bill went, but they’re scared of the political implications and that’s what’s driving their reticence?

Murphy: I think it’ll be really important to show Republicans that the sky doesn’t fall when you support these common sense restrictions. And so part of the theory behind this bill is to show that for the fifteen Senate Republicans who voted for it, they win elections in the aftermath of a vote like this, not lose elections. And when that happens, then I think you will see more Republicans sign up—because there’s a lot of Republicans here who know what the right thing to do is, but they just are under this belief that the gun lobby is going to defeat them in an election if they support raising the age on assault weapons to 21.

Miller: I have a left critique and a right critique for you really quick. My friend, my internet friend, Cameron Kasky, Parkland survivor and advocate, I asked him what he thought about this. And he said to you, Senator Murphy, that “Your Republican colleagues are going to lean on passing this bill for thirty years of inaction as dead bodies continue to pile up.” What would be your response to that critique—that this was a small-ball thing that Republicans will use as an excuse to not go further?

Murphy: I adore Cameron, but I respectfully think he’s wrong. I don’t think there’s any evidence that great social change movements hang up their spikes after their first win. When you got states to legalize gay adoption, that wasn’t the end of the gay marriage movement. In fact, we picked up steam. After the first small civil rights bill in the 1950s, the protesters didn’t go home. No, they gained strength. So there’s really no evidence in American history that settling for the first win means that you’re also settling for the last.

Miller: On the right, I talked to the editor of the Reload, I don’t know if you’re aware this website, the most reasonable gun advocate that I know. I asked him what he thought about the bill and what he thought we should ask you about. And the question coming from the right is, essentially, “Are there guns that you do believe that citizens should be able to continue to own? Otherwise, is this just a slippery slope towards a full confiscation?”

Murphy: I think there’s a really convenient narrative out there that there’s some hidden agenda that I have, that other gun advocates have, and that’s just not true. I believe the Second Amendment protects the right of private gun ownership. But there has always been a line, a weapon that we decide is the exclusive province of the military. And I think most conservatives accept that—it’s just a question of exactly where we draw that line. I have no desire to take shotguns away, handguns away. But I do think that there’s a particular long gun that has been designed to kill as many human beings as quickly as possible. That gun, the AR-15 and its variants, I just think for me and for many Americans, sits on the military side of the equation, not the civilian side.

Miller: So just put it another way for viewers of this who like going hunting, like their guns, believe that the Second Amendment protects their constitutional right against tyranny. The president kind of mocked that view that the Second Amendment protects some constitutional right against tyranny and I think a lot of conservatives disagreed with that and said, “No, really, it does. It’s an important right that we have against our government.” What would be your message as someone who wants to reform guns to people who strongly believe that the Constitution protects their right to protect themselves?

Murphy: Well, I actually don’t think that the Constitution protects your right to take up arms against the government. The reason for the Second Amendment primarily was to make sure that we had the ability to muster militias to protect the United States against foreign invaders and against internal rebellion. So shortly after the passage of the Constitution, the Second Amendment is invoked to muster a militia to put down a rebellion in rural Pennsylvania. And so I don’t think it’s a correct reading—in fact, I’m sure it’s not a correct reading of the Constitution to think that the reason the Second Amendment is there is to allow the American people to shoot at the Army. That’s not actually what the Second Amendment is about.

Miller: You mentioned that you were the youngest senator when you came in. Now we have Jon Ossoff, Brian Schatz. The Democratic leadership, pretty old, not a big secret, in the Senate and the House, the President. Is there something that you think your generation of younger members of Congress understand about how the Democrats can be successful and how policy can be passed that maybe some of the older members of the leadership are a little bit behind on?

Murphy: Well, we are this first generation of parents who’s living through the era of mass shootings, so all of my kids in their minds know where they would run to and hide in their elementary and middle school. And so I do think the younger generation here has more of a willingness to challenge the status quo on an issue like guns, this belief forever that there was only [political] downside on the issue of guns, not upside. I think if you’re younger, if you’re a younger parent, you know how insatiable parents and kids are for action on guns. And that’s something that the older generation just may not be able to see because they’re not talking to parents who are going through these mass shooter drills with their kids.

Miller: What’s your take on mass shooter drills? I think there’s some view of some that they are more harmful maybe than good, as far as traumatizing and triggering kids.

Murphy: I think it makes sense for our schools to be prepared, but I think you’ve got to partner these mass shooter drills with a reality check with kids. They shouldn’t be under the belief that this is likely to happen to them. They are, but the reality is in this country that you are more likely to die from an object falling on you than you are to die in a mass shooting. And we should right-size the risk for our kids while getting them ready for that admittedly very remote potential.

Miller: Rapid fire, really quick. You have to be on a desert island with a Republican in Congress. Whom would you choose?

Murphy: I would choose Thom Tillis, whom I did the gun bill with. Super interesting, super funny guy. He’s a good story teller. If you were on a desert island for a long time, you’d need somebody who could tell a bunch of good stories. . . .

Miller: Best thing the Biden administration has done besides the gun bill? Biggest criticism or frustration with something from the administration?

Murphy: Best thing he’s done: pull our troops out of Afghanistan. Gutsy decision, the right call to get the United States out of a war that we were losing. My biggest frustration, I’m a big critic of our Saudi Arabia policy. I think there are way too many dictators in the Middle East that we still are far too close to. I would like the Biden administration to be a little bit stronger when it comes to walking the walk on human rights, not just talking.

Miller: Hard same on that one. Favorite Twitter follow? You active on Twitter?

Murphy: My new favorite Twitter follow is Rex Chapman.

Miller: Favorite all time UConn basketball player?

Murphy: Tate George.

Miller: Ooh. I’m a Rip Hamilton man. This goes back to my youth. Okay, final thing, message to young voters watching this who feel like, “You’re all corrupt. It’s worthless. You don’t get anything done”? What would you say to them about how they can engage and why they should be more involved?

Murphy: I just hope people see what we’ve done this summer. All of a sudden, the drug industry, the oil industry, the gun industry, all have power taken from them. Why? Because young people turned out in 2018 to 2020 and elected a whole bunch of leaders who are willing to take on these vested interests. We can do more of that if more young people show up. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Young people say, “Well, nobody listens to me so I’m not going to turn out and vote.” Well, the problem is the 80-year-olds are still turning out and voting and so if young people don’t take power and start showing up then the thing they complain about will just get worse and worse. . . .

Miller: So the Senate is debating a bill to codify gay marriage to protect in case the Supreme Court gets overturned. Do we think we can get ten Republicans to vote for this? What’s your take on it? . . .

Murphy: I think we’re going to get ten Republicans. I think Republicans know which way history is moving on this and they know that this will be their one opportunity to do the right thing and to be able to tell their grandkids and for their great grandkids to know that their relative who was a senator here did the right thing. And so I think we’ll get the ten votes.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.