Why this Senator sees hope in the US gun safety battle

Why this Senator sees hope in the US gun safety battle


Monday’s mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, which killed at least seven people, is just the latest entry in America’s shameful tradition of gun violence.

Less than a month into the new year, the US has seen at least 39 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, putting 2023 in a position to record the most mass shootings at that point in the year.

The bipartisan Gun Safety Act signed last summer brought modest changes to the country’s gun laws but did not touch assault rifles, the weapon of choice for many mass shooters.

But it’s not all hopeless. After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Senator Chris Murphy has made gun safety legislation his life’s work and predicts a sea change is on the horizon.

We spoke to the Connecticut Democrat Tuesday about US gun culture, reforms and his hopes for this year. Our conversation, conducted over the phone and edited lightly for flow and brevity, is below.

LEBLANC: I’d like to start with your response to the spate of recent mass shootings – 39 so far this year. What does that mean?

MURPHY: It speaks to a tremendous disease in America. This is the only country in the world where men who break with reality exercise their demons through mass murder.

We’re not the only place in the world with mental illness. We’re not the only place in the world where people are paranoid. But only in America are we so casual about access to weapons of mass destruction and only in America do we fetishize violence so much that we end up with all the mass shootings.

So we’re in a race right now. We’re passing more gun safety laws than ever before, but at the same time, more guns — and especially more illegal and highly dangerous guns — are flooding our communities at a rate we’ve never seen before.

Right now, with the laws we are passing, we are saving many lives. But the net effect is that the increased sales and transfer rates still result in higher rates of violence.

LEBLANC: You recently struck an optimistic note regarding the fight for sane gun laws in the United States. What drives this optimism?

MURPHY: There is no doubt that the laws passed save lives. The bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed last summer, will save thousands of lives once fully implemented.

And I know it’s already saved lives. I was briefed by the FBI and they showed me the incredibly dangerous people who would have been given guns at moments of crisis in their lives if it wasn’t for the law we passed last summer.

The bills being passed by state legislatures, most recently in places like New Jersey and Illinois, will also save lives. But there are already so many guns in circulation and there are so many states that have weakened their laws, not made them stricter, in the last 10 years that we are not able to have the effect we want.

LEBLANC: How do you deal with people who grew up with guns and use their guns responsibly? How do you convince this group that something like a ban on assault weapons is a good idea?

MURPHY: People are only willing to support laws that work, and we need to make sure everyone understands how much less mass shootings we’ve had in the 10 years that assault weapons were banned.

It’s just true that states with stricter gun laws, including bans on assault weapons, have far fewer gun-related deaths. It’s also true that we saw fewer mass shootings when the country decided to tighten its laws on assault weapons.

The NRA and the gun lobby have done a good job of convincing many gun owners that laws don’t work and that no matter what the law says, people will evade the law. That is not true. Laws work, and the ban on offensive weapons in particular has worked.

We don’t sell assault weapons in Connecticut, but I honestly don’t get many complaints from people in my state because they can still buy a powerful weapon to protect their home. You can still buy guns to hunt or shoot for sport; Collectors in Connecticut still have access to a wide variety of firearms. I think we need to convince people that if we ban assault weapons, the sky will not fall.

Finally, we must also convince gun owners that there is no secret agenda. The NRA and the gun lobby have done a good job of convincing people that my agenda and the agenda of the movement is gun confiscation. It’s a complete invention.

I think every gun should have a background check. I think there are some guns that are too dangerous to sell in the commercial market. I don’t think we should restrict people’s access to firearms in general. I don’t think the Constitution allows that, and my side of the debate should be clear about what we intend to do and what we don’t intend to do.

LEBLANC: I wanted to ask you how you think the gun debate in America became so detached from what the data tells us. It sounds like you’re saying the NRA and the gun lobby have a big part to play in this?

MURPHY: I think it’s more complicated than that. America has had a very romantic relationship with guns since the days of Samuel Colt. Guns have been part of American identity and mythology for more than 150 years.

Today it is true that many Americans believe that their access to American ideals such as freedom and liberty is related to their unfettered access to firearms. And they believe that if their gun rights are curtailed, something will be taken away from them as patriotic Americans. So I think we have to accept that this is powerful mythology and it’s not new.

It wasn’t invented by Charlton Heston in the 1980s, you know; Samuel Colt and Winchester and Remington – they’ve been doing this since the 1860s. It’s a powerful force that we must fight, and I think we must accept that guns will always be a big part of American culture.

Guns will be an important part of growing up in many American families. But you can still make guns a huge part of American culture without people having access to AR-15s, while also ensuring that only law-abiding citizens own guns.

LEBLANC: There has been much discussion by medical professionals about reframing America’s gun debate as a public health crisis rather than a political issue. Do you think a public health approach can help make progress?

MURPHY: I think we need to step back and understand the true cost of our gun violence problem. We often refer to the problem of the number of people dying each day. And that number — over 110 — is extraordinary.

But I attended a low-income school in my Hartford neighborhood last fall, a neighborhood with high rates of violence. And I sat down with a group of eighth graders. All they wanted to talk to me about was their commute to school and how dangerous it was and how it was consuming their day. Think about it, worry about it.

We are losing an entire generation of children in our violent neighborhoods because their brains are being broken due to the everyday trauma of gun violence and the worry that they will be next. And that’s not even to mention the fact that every kid in this country, no matter how violent their neighborhood is now, has to go through active marksmanship at school, and that’s traumatic.

So I think we need to understand how fragile children’s brains are and how damaging it is for those children to be exposed to violence. It’s just no coincidence that the underperforming schools in this country tend to be all in the most violent neighborhoods.

LEBLANC: In your opinion, what would make 2023 a successful year in the fight against gun violence? New legislation? Cultural changes?

MURPHY: Of course, I would like to build on our successes at federal level. I understand that this Republican majority in the House of Representatives is going to be a dumpster fire. They probably won’t be able to pass anything, let alone gun laws.

But I’ll try to find common ground. I’m looking at an issue like the safekeeping of firearms and I think there’s certainly potential for a bipartisan agreement.

I also want to implement the 2022 law — that’s five big changes in America’s gun laws and lots of money for safer communities and gun violence programs. So I want to make sure that the administration enforces this law vigorously.

I would like to see more state law changes. Connecticut is likely to enact some new legislation. Other states like Michigan will do the same. So I would like to see state progressions.

Ultimately, I just want to keep the movement growing. I think right now the gun safety movement is stronger than the gun lobby, but it’s close. And so we will continue to recruit more volunteers, raise more money and be more active in campaigns.

This is a trend that has continued over the past decade and one that I hope to continue in 2023.

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