U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), 48, became a national leader in the fight against gun violence when he was a U.S. representative after a massacre in his district at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, which was one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. This interview was conducted on June 10. Thirteen days later, the Senate passed a bipartisan gun violence prevention bill.
When you get news of another shooting, particularly a school shooting, how does that hit you, as somebody who’s in the trenches of fighting gun violence and has seen its impact on communities?
The first thing I always think about is the Sandy Hook parents, because I know that they are forced to relive that day every time they see these images on the screen. Very often I’ll reach out to them, text some of my closer friends from Sandy Hook and just tell them I’m thinking about them. And then I start to panic about the script we’re about to go through, like, “Are we going to do this again? Are we going to do ‘thoughts and prayers,’ and then have a burst of conversation about legislative action, and then it all disappears?” I start to think, “What can I do to try to interrupt that script? What can I do to try to make sure that this time is different?”
Having been at the firehouse in Sandy Hook that day, having been with the parents, and then having grown up in the Senate around those parents, I wake up every day thinking about how I can try to honor those kids’ lives. I also am deeply embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t work on this issue before Sandy Hook. It was maybe a month after Sandy Hook that I went to a community forum in the north end of Hartford and the parents there were furious at me. “Where have you been for the last six years?” “Why do you all of a sudden care about gun violence?” “It’s been our reality the entire time you’ve been in public service.” So I feel like I’m also trying to make up for lost time because this epidemic was real for so many people in Connecticut way before Sandy Hook.
How do you get people for whom gun violence hasn’t been an issue to focus on something that hasn’t — touch wood — impacted their lives directly?
Well, I’m very much in awe of these survivors and these moms and dads, who, in the middle of their grief, have chosen also to be activists. They are 10 times more impactful than I am. Their willingness to tell their story and to share their grief with my colleagues is transformative. It was the Sandy Hook parents reaching out to Joe Manchin in 2013 that convinced him to take a huge political risk and write the background checks bill compromise. And it has also been the relationships that these parents have developed with other members of the Senate that have gotten us to the point where we have more serious conversations than ever before. And obviously I have used the floor of the Senate to express my real, organic outrage at our inaction in the wake of these shootings. Because I worry that my colleagues, but also the rest of the country, could develop a sense of numbness. I’ve tried to use my voice to shake and rattle my colleagues into remembering that none of this is normal and we should not accept any of this.
How often do you feel like that gets through?
We certainly have had this rhythm in which the country pays attention to this broad issue after a mass shooting, but it only lasts for a couple of days or maybe a couple of weeks. This moment is slightly different in that the twin cataclysms of Buffalo and Uvalde have had a very different effect on the public. But we are also at a moment where the cumulative work of the movement, both inside Congress and outside Congress, is having an impact. Over the last 10 years I’ve had a lot of partners in the Senate that’ll be willing to talk to me for a little while, but then without consummation.
This is a moment where all of those individual partners are now coming to a bigger table, and so I feel as if the work that we’ve done to grow the number of Republicans willing to talk is paying off, because we’ve convened a big table and almost everybody at that table has been part of one of these prior conversations, and I don’t think they’d be at this table if we hadn’t done the sort of hard, long work over the last 10 years to grow the number of people on the Republican side who are willing to engage.
How do you explain to the families, to yourself, why more hasn’t been done, how it’s taken so long and still: little to nothing?
Yeah. I certainly believed after Sandy Hook that everything had changed and that the country had woken up. And I’ve come to the conclusion over time that’s not how politics works. There’s very few moments of epiphany and 180-degree change in Washington. Most things here require political power to shift, and that process can take decades. The anti-gun-violence movement for all intents and purposes did not exist in 2012; it is a creation of the last 10 years. And it’s been the slow, methodical development of that movement and the public’s participation in it that has allowed us to gradually see change as more possible. But listen, I’m sick and tired of explaining to parents whose kids are dead why Congress doesn’t do anything. I mean, it’s heartbreaking. But I do believe that we are part of a social change movement, and if you study social change movements, they unfortunately take decades, not years.
Can you talk about a dark moment, when you just wanted to give up?
Listen, I don’t think it gets any worse than the failure of the background checks vote in 2013 and having to walk out of the Senate chamber and confront these [Sandy Hook] parents who, frankly, expected we were going to do much more than background checks, and we couldn’t even do that. The Bardens and the Sotos and Dawn Hochsprung’s daughter. I just — that was such a frustrating time for me, because I was so new to the Senate and I wasn’t in a position where I could cobble together the compromise, because I was literally introducing myself to my colleagues at the moment where this legislation was moving through the system. It was a very, very, very, very difficult moment. But I remember talking to one of the parents who said, “Chris, I’m not giving up. I’m going to be an advocate for the next 40 years.” That was all I needed to hear to convince me to keep going.
How do you respond when people say that you’re politicizing a tragedy?
I tell people that the police don’t wait two days to try to solve the murder. To me, the way we stop these shootings is to pass legislation that makes an impact, so why would I wait to try to prevent the next shooting? We should all be working faster than we are today to try to prevent these. I think this idea of not talking about policy in the wake of a mass shooting is largely an invention of the status quo that wants nobody to talk about policy change at the very moment when the public is most interested in talking about policy change. But I think that idea that you can’t talk about policy after a mass shooting has largely disappeared, in part because the shootings now happen so frequently. Uvalde happened on a Tuesday, and we were having meetings with lots of Republicans on Thursday.
Having spent years trying to convince and cajole colleagues into making change, have you questioned whether this profession is the best way to do that, given the frustrations, and whether you would consider activism or some other way to influence the issue and push it forward?
I don’t think anybody here worth their salt doesn’t occasionally question whether this is the best use of their time, but I’ve had enough breakthroughs here to know the difference you can make.
I remember being at our community pool in Cheshire, Connecticut, right after the Affordable Care Act, and this dad coming up to me and saying, “Listen, now you don’t know me, and I don’t want to bother you, I know you’re here with your kids. But I just want to tell you, my kid has a congenital heart defect, and I woke up every single night worried that the rest of his life was going to be defined by this ailment that was no fault of his own, and every decision he made for the rest of his life would be dictated by whether he could get care or not get care. With one piece of legislation, you changed his life and you changed my life. Thank you.” And so I just know that this place still has the ability to do things. So I think I’ve become comfortable with just keeping at it knowing that those moments are possible.
If you could go back to when you were just starting out and give yourself advice, is there anything you would change about the way that you’ve approached your work here?
I have learned over my time here how important relationships and friendships are and how, especially on an issue like this, trust is so important. And I’ve tried to build that trust with Republicans. When I got here I was probably so angry at our failure that I probably too often retreated to making my argument rather than building the relationships necessary to solve the problem. And over time I’ve gotten better at that. Maybe that would be the one piece of advice I’d give myself 10 years later.
You said a deal in the Senate it would be a “triumph” and a “miracle.” In your heart of hearts or in your gut, do you think that this could be the moment for that miracle?
I don’t know. I won’t accept a change in our gun laws that just checks a box. I’m only going to agree to something that is meaningful and saves lots of lives, but I also accept that we are not going to pass an assault weapons ban right now, and it would be foolish to do nothing until we can do everything. There is a reason why it’s taken 30 years; this is the most politically complicated, emotionally fraught issue we deal with, and there’s lots of incentives for people to just stay in their political corners.
This moment does feel different. We’re closer than ever before, but I’m realizing how hard that last step is. At this point I know I can count on my Democratic colleagues. On the Republican side, I know them all pretty well, and I generally know the folks that are going to be the real hard targets to persuade. But I will occasionally be surprised by them.
When you speak to your Republican colleagues or folks who say one thing behind closed doors and then won’t take a position publicly, how do you feel about that?
Kind of like you can’t change your family, I can’t change the people I have to work with, at least inside a two-year period of time. So if somebody says “no,” or somebody tells me something privately and then says a different thing publicly, I cannot afford to give up on them because, ultimately, when you’re trying to search for 60 or 70 votes, you will take the support from wherever and however it comes. So I’m pretty coldblooded about the business I’m in. You have to be always looking for the way to get somebody from “no” to “yes.”
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the Magazine. This interview has been edited and condensed.