On Dec. 14, 2012, a few weeks after Chris Murphy was first elected as a U.S. senator from Connecticut, he was standing on a train platform with his wife and children, on their way into New York City to see the Christmas decorations. That was when he heard about the horrific shooting in is state, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 26 people were killed, 20 of them young children. Murphy literally left his family at the station, heading up to the grieving community of Newtown. Ever since that day, Murphy has dedicated himself to preventing other families from enduring that same horror.
I spoke to Murphy, now in his second term in Washington, for “Salon Talks” about his work to reduce gun violence in our nation. He was among the driving forces behind the bipartisan gun reform legislation enacted last year — the first major gun safety bill passed by our oft-paralyzed Congress in 30 years. He told me that this legislation was genuinely consequential, and has had real-world impact: “Lots of people have been denied weapons that absolutely shouldn’t have them.”
Murphy went on to slam Republicans who so often claim to care about children, but block efforts to protect their lives from gun violence, for example by refusing to control the sale of AR-15s and other assault-type weapons. “It is beyond me why Republicans who claim to care about the health of our kids don’t seem to give a crap about our children who are being exposed to these epidemic, cataclysmic rates of gun violence,” he said.
Murphy also wasn’t timid in discussing what’s gun violence: the sheer number of guns in the United States. “Gun purchase rates, starting in the Obama era, but really supercharged during the pandemic, have meant that there are just exponentially more weapons out there today than ever before,” he said. “I don’t really think people understand how big a problem this is and how quickly it has come to overwhelm us.” But as he concedes, it’s a problem with no easy answer.
Watch “Salon Talks” with Senator Chris Murphy here, or read an edited transcript of our conversation below, to hear more about why he’s supporting President Biden’s potential re-election campaign, how he works on bipartisan legislation and how he views the current take on the Republican Party: “Sticking up for Jan. 6 protesters and bludgeoning Hunter Biden — that’s about all they can agree on,” he said.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Last June, for the first time in decades, bipartisan gun reform legislation was passed. You were a primary sponsor. How has it helped in reducing gun violence?
It is important to understand how consequential this legislation was. This is the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in 30 years. This is a bill that was vehemently, strongly opposed by the NRA and other gun groups, and yet we were able to get significant Republican support, matched with Democratic support, to get it passed.
It had five pretty big changes in gun laws. The most notable was support for state “red flag” laws. These are the laws that states passed to temporarily take guns away from individuals who are in crisis, threatening harm to themselves or others. It closes the boyfriend loophole, so that means that everyone that’s been convicted of a domestic violence crime in this country will have their guns taken away, and can’t buy any new guns.
Gun purchase rates, starting in the Obama era, but really supercharged during the pandemic, have meant that there are exponentially more weapons out there today than ever before.
It also has a new background check for under-21 purchasers. Unfortunately, you see these mass shooters tend to be 18-, 19-, 20-year old males. Now there’s a waiting period for every young buyer in this country. You can’t walk out of a gun store with an AR-15 any longer if you’re under 21. There’s a more enhanced, longer background check that’s done before that purchase happens.
Then there’s two other changes: increased penalties for gun trafficking and “straw purchasing” to interrupt the trade of illegal weapons in this country, and then a requirement that more sellers of weapons, if they’re selling online or at gun shows, perform background checks.
On top of that, there’s $15 billion in the bill — I know nobody knows what numbers are big and small any longer when the federal budget is trillions, but $15 billion is a lot of money to spend on mental health and school safety. Maybe the biggest one-time investment in mental health in this country since the Affordable Care Act. That money right now is going to schools, community clinics to try to improve access to mental health and help schools become healthier, safer places. A big deal, more frankly than I thought we could get done. I’m really proud of the fact that Republicans and Democrats joined together.
Has it made a difference? The short answer is it has. A group of us went out to the National Criminal Background Check system a couple of weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats, and got a briefing. Lots of people have been denied weapons that absolutely shouldn’t have them. A lot of young buyers who were in crisis who were going to buy a weapon who no doubt were going to use that weapon to either kill themselves or to kill others have been stopped from getting that weapon because of the law that we passed. That’s just one example of the lives that have undoubtedly been saved already by this legislation.
For decades nothing could pass, even after Sandy Hook. Even after Obama literally cried because he was moved so much by the families who had lost children. We have a Supreme Court that, in the Bruen case, seems to make it difficult if not impossible to enact legislation to save lives from gun violence. Can something withstand the scrutiny of this far-right court?
Well, that’s up for debate. The formal holding of the Bruen decision is fairly narrow about a very specific law in New York, but there’s language attached to that decision very purposefully, very clinically, designed to essentially invite district court judges and appellate court judges to bring their politics into the courtroom.
The Supreme Court may rule that any prohibition or any regulation of guns that didn’t exist at the founding of this country is unconstitutional. That’s absolutely absurd.
What the rest of that decision hints at is that the Supreme Court may rule that any prohibition or any regulation of guns that didn’t exist at the founding of this country is unconstitutional. Now, that’s absolutely absurd: Many of the weapons that we are dealing with today did not exist at the time of the founding, and there’s no way that our founding fathers believed that the Constitution didn’t allow you to regulate anything that was invented after the Constitution was passed. But that’s what district court, appellate court judges are beginning to do, to say that if it wasn’t regulated in the 1780s, it can’t be regulated today.
That is a pathway to invalidate almost all of our gun laws because any crime that wasn’t a crime back then, you can’t prohibit people from buying guns if they’ve been convicted of a new crime that didn’t exist in 1780. Assault weapons didn’t exist back then, so you can’t prohibit those. We’re definitely headed towards a very dangerous place, where Congress and state legislatures may be prohibited from passing many of the common sense gun laws that enjoy broad public support today. That’s how radical this court is. Again, I use the word clinical. I mean they are very purposeful in that they put out these rulings that are technically narrow, but invite lower courts to engage in much more sweeping jurisprudence.
You tweeted something really provocative, saying that we have to address the massive explosion of guns in order to deal with gun violence. How do we do that?
I don’t really think people understand how big a problem this is and how quickly it has come to overwhelm us. That tweet was accompanied by a chart, and I’d encourage people to look at it. The explosion of guns in this country is a very recent phenomenon, certainly of the last 15 years, but really of the last five years. The gun purchase rates, starting in the Obama era, but really supercharged during the pandemic, have meant that there are exponentially more weapons out there today than ever before.
It was hammered home for me by the mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut, a guy by the name of Neil O’Leary, who used to be a police chief. Before he was a police chief, he used to be a beat cop. He said, “I started out in the 1980s. It was a big deal if we came across an illegal gun. It happened every now and again, but there weren’t a lot of illegal guns out there. Criminals had them, real hardened criminals. Then, about 10, 15 years ago, it started becoming more regular. Every week we would pick up an illegal gun or two as we were stopping people, as we were doing searches.
Then he said, “Today, every day. It’s like water. It’s like rain. We come across illegal guns every day because they’re everywhere.” Detectives in Bridgeport, Connecticut, told me the other day, “Used to be that a group of kids that were involved in risky behaviors, they’d normally have a community gun. They’d all know where the gun was if they needed it. Now every single kid is armed. Every car has a weapon.” So what happens is every dispute turns into a shooting.
Ted Cruz is looking for confrontations and opportunities to yell at people, and I just would rather not give him those opportunities.
That same detective in Bridgeport told me, “I don’t respond to fistfights anymore. They just don’t happen. Kids don’t have fistfights in Bridgeport. Every beef turns into shots fired.” That is connected to the ubiquity of weapons —so what do we do about it? It’s really hard. We can do gun buybacks. That has a pretty narrow-scale effect. But this is a problem that we’re just living with right now, and we’re not talking about gun confiscation. So you’re just trying at this point to stop the problem from getting even worse.
We hear people on the right talk about their concern for children. But every day children die by gun violence, and I hear zero concern from them about this. Instead they want to demonize transgender teens or ban books about Black history from school to protect children from feeling uncomfortable. What about protecting kids from being shot in their classroom?
Listen, it’s not just that. If you grow up in a poor neighborhood, a neighborhood that’s prone to violence, like the neighborhood I live in — I live in the south end of Hartford. I went to go visit my local K-8 school. I sat down with a group of eighth-grade leaders at this school, and they wanted to talk to me about one thing: Their walk to and from school. They wanted to talk to me about how scared they are every day when they leave their house. That trauma, it changes the brain chemistry of children. So it’s not a coincidence that all the underperforming schools in this country are in the violent neighborhoods. It’s because when you are exposed to violence, when you fear for your life when you’re coming to and from school, how on earth can you learn when you’re in school that day?
So to me, we can’t catalog the epidemic of gun violence merely by how many shootings we’ve had or even how many homicides we’ve had. You have to talk about a generation of kids, specifically in these violence-prone neighborhoods, that we are literally losing because their brains change when they’re exposed to war-like levels of trauma. It is beyond me why Republicans who claim to care about the health of our kids don’t seem to give a crap about our children who are being exposed to these epidemic, cataclysmic rates of gun violence.
You’ve had some battles with Ted Cruz. I don’t know if you’re the Batman and he’s the Joker, and this is how it works out. Can you ever reach someone like Ted Cruz on issues like this?
I don’t know that I have battles with Ted Cruz. I just tend to ignore him. I mean, he comes to the floor and makes these ridiculous requests. I object to them and then leave the floor. And he yells at me for a while once I’m back in my office, but I’m not sure that they’re actual battles. Ted Cruz is looking for confrontations and opportunities to yell at people, and I would rather not give him those opportunities.
Here’s the good news. I mean, you’re never going to get Ted Cruz on a compromise legislation. He’s not in the Senate to compromise. He’s in the Senate to get clicks. But there’s plenty of Republicans in the Senate who want to do deals and who want to compromise. We got that gun bill done last year because Sen, Cruz’s colleague in Texas, who represents the same constituency that Sen. Cruz does, decided that it was better for his state and for our country if we started to work together.
We can continue to make progress — not with every Republican in the Senate, but there are plenty that are at the point where they think part of their job description is to make the gun laws of this nation make more sense.
John Cornyn told me, “There’s a whole bunch of things I cannot do, but there’s some things I can. Let’s focus on the things we can do together instead of the things that we argue over.” That’s how we got the gun bill done. We can continue to make progress, not with every Republican in the Senate, but there are plenty that are at the point where they think part of their job description is to make the gun laws of this nation make more sense.
I cannot recall another president talking as much about the contest between democracy and autocracy, both foreign and domestic, as Joe Biden. We see Donald Trump running again, spewing language that you would expect to see from an autocrat in some other nation, not the United States of America. How concerned are you about our democratic republic?
Listen, I’m very concerned. I mean, you obviously are still living with the aftermath of an insurrection attempt against the federal government. You have a sizable portion of the country that is not really interested in preserving democracy. All they want is their people in power. If democracy doesn’t result in their people being in power, then they’re not really interested in democracy. I think there’s an element of the Republican Party that feels the same thing. There’s a strain of thought in the new right that believes democracy is anachronistic, it’s irrelevant. It can’t keep up with the pace of modern society, so you need a quasi-dictatorship or monarchy instead. There’s a lot of really scary thought that’s happening out there.
But the American people had a chance to weigh in on this. They had a whole bunch of candidates running in 2022 that were intent on overturning democracy. And most of them, not all of them, but most of the highest-profile candidates who fit that category lost. Joe Biden showed extraordinary leadership. People said, “Why is Joe Biden making the closing argument about democracy? I mean, that’s not what’s on people’s mind. He should be talking about wages or should be talking about abortion. He should be talking about something else.”
Well, there’s two kinds of leadership, one in which you let others set the agenda and you just fill in the blanks, or one in which you set the agenda. By Joe Biden elevating the case for democracy and the stakes in 2022 about the future of democracy, I think a lot of voters took cues from the president and came out and voted to preserve democracy. Young people came out in certain states at record numbers, and I think they were coming out in part because they were trying to preserve American democracy. We certainly still have the threat, but I feel better than I maybe expected to feel after last November.
Are you surprised that it’s been more than two years since Jan. 6 and Donald Trump has not faced any charges for his role in an attempted coup and for his role, as the Jan. 6 committee said, in inciting the attack on our Capitol?
I mean, I don’t provide advice to prosecutors in general. I don’t do it when it comes to charges against Connecticut citizens, I don’t do it when it comes to charges against the president of the United States. I don’t profess any surprise or lack of surprise. That’s ultimately a decision that the prosecutorial wing of the federal government will make.
If Donald Trump has clearly violated the laws of this country, he should be held accountable. I have been pretty clear, though, that I think it’s got to be a pretty open-and-shut case. I think you’ve got to be careful about charging former presidents of the United States. I think it’s OK to be careful and to make sure that you’re going to win that case. I don’t provide advice other than that advice, which is to have a pretty high standard when it comes to bringing criminal charges against former presidents of the United States.
Democrats actually gained a seat in the Senate by winning in Pennsylvania. What’s it like, on a practical level, being in the Senate with one more Democratic senator?
“I certainly want to nominate somebody who knows how to win, knows how to beat Donald Trump.”
People don’t see some of the practical differences it makes. We could ultimately prevail on the Senate floor [with a 50-50 split] because the vice president breaks a tie. The vice president doesn’t vote in committees. Every committee in the prior Congress had equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. For instance, on the Foreign Relations Committee, when there was an ambassador Republicans had objected to, they couldn’t pass our committee. So we had to go through a special procedure and a lot of extra time to get that nomination to the floor for a vote. Well, now we have a majority in all of our committees.
This week we’ve had a couple close votes, one of which was for a nominee to staff a global women’s health care office. Every Republican voted against her simply because she was pro-choice. That would’ve been a tie vote, not advancing out of committee. Now Democrats won the vote, and we can take an immediate vote on the Senate floor.
In practical ways, that extra vote makes a difference. Now, you’ve still got a couple Democrats in our caucus who are much more conservative and a little bit more resistant to major change, and you’ve got to deal with that to get anything passed. But yes, it’s much better to be at 51 than 50.
Another presidential election is almost here. You’ve been very strongly supportive of President Biden. Why do you think he deserves a second term?
Sticking up for Jan. 6 protesters and bludgeoning Hunter Biden — that’s about all they can agree on.
The proof is in the pudding. I mean, look at this president’s record. You’re talking about a 90% reduction in COVID deaths, an economy that is on fire, structurally low unemployment. You have a record of legislative achievement that is unparalleled.
I just don’t think you have any other president in our lifetime that has gotten as much done in the first two years as Joe Biden did when it comes to improving people’s lives, saving lives. The bipartisan Safer Communities Act, lower prescription drug costs. And you’ve got a president who knows how to win. I think Donald Trump is going to be their candidate. Maybe I’m wrong. I certainly want to nominate somebody who knows how to win, and knows how to beat Donald Trump in particular. But I also want to reward President Biden for a first two years that has been pretty damn successful.
The amount of legislation that was passed on issue after issue was great. Now the Republicans have had the House for two months and they’ve passed nothing. They’re having hearings about Twitter.
I mean, the crazy thing is that they can’t even figure out the easy issues for Republicans. Take the border. I thought it was going to be easy for them to do something totally irresponsible and draconian and racist. They can’t even get their act together on the stuff where they don’t need a single Democratic vote: electing a speaker, passing an immigration bill. So that is really terrible news for the republic, but it is an advertisement to the American people of how dysfunctional government is if you give it to Republicans these days.
I just read that the Oversight Committee, because of Marjorie Taylor Greene, si going to visit the Jan. 6 prisoners in jail. They can unify around that. It’s a remarkable time to watch.
Sticking up for Jan. 6 protesters and bludgeoning Hunter Biden — that’s about all they can agree on.
Can you believe the politicization of the Jan. 6 attack, as opposed to how we were united after 9/11? There is now a partisan agenda around Jan. 6. Is that just the times we live in? Should we have expected it?
No, we shouldn’t expect it and we shouldn’t accept it. It just doesn’t have to be like this. When there’s an attack against the United States, whether it comes from foreign terrorists or Americans, we should rise up to defend our nation, period, full stop.
“Salon Talks” with members of Congress