TechnologyChris Murphy broke through the gridlock on guns. He’s...

Chris Murphy broke through the gridlock on guns. He’s not done.

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Litchfield, Conn.

Clad in running shoes and a UConn baseball cap, Sen. Chris Murphy walks along the shoulder of a two-lane road, a red umbrella bobbing above his head. Occasionally, he’s splashed by a passing car. 

The junior senator is on his sixth “Walk Across Connecticut,” in which he treks from one end of his state to the other, talking with voters and taking selfies along the way. It’s the kind of event that politicians often invite the press to cover. But Mr. Murphy, his team warns, likes to walk alone.

For the past decade, he has approached his quest to curb America’s gun violence in much the same way: one dogged step at a time, and often by himself. 

Why We Wrote This

The Connecticut senator guided a gun safety package through Congress after years of trying. Colleagues credit him for listening, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Part 1 of 2.

Ever since 2012, when the then-congressman found himself consoling devastated parents outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown following one of the worst mass shootings in American history, Mr. Murphy has immersed himself in the gun issue. He learned from activists, wrote a book, and tried to get Congress to pass gun safety legislation – to no avail. 

But then, on May 24, came another shooting at another elementary school, this time across the country in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen children and two teachers died, and something in the country seemed to break. Mr. Murphy was approached by a small cohort of Democrats and Republicans who were committed to passing something. On June 25, President Joe Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major federal gun safety measure in almost three decades.

It didn’t make everyone happy. Critics on the left called the bill a sop to Republicans that would do little to solve the problem. Those on the other side said it would violate the rights of law-abiding Americans.

But for the Connecticut senator, it was a significant milestone – in a journey that’s still ongoing. 

“I have young kids, and my oldest was not so far away from first grade when Sandy Hook happened,” he says, eyes locked on his feet as he walks. “When that tragedy happened, my entire political life changed.” 

A career politician from a decidedly blue state, Mr. Murphy may not seem like the future of the Democratic Party. At a time when many voters gravitate toward outside-the-box personalities, he gives off a decidedly low-key, button-down dad vibe. But as Americans grow increasingly frustrated with a government that seems frozen by inaction and bickering, Mr. Murphy has garnered praise from both sides of the aisle for his Sisyphean determination to get something, anything, done on guns. Many say the legislation wouldn’t have happened without his willingness to listen to opponents and put substance ahead of politics. 

“This town rewards people who talk themselves out of things,” says Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a fellow Democrat and one of Mr. Murphy’s closest friends in the Senate. “Chris didn’t mind looking like he was trying and failing.” 

Sandy Hook to Uvalde

On a cold December day in 2012, Mr. Murphy was getting ready to board a train to New York with his wife and two young sons to celebrate the Christmas season, when word reached him that there had been a shooting at a school in his district. Maybe it’s a workplace dispute gone horribly wrong, thought the then-congressman, who had just been elected to the U.S. Senate one month prior. 

During the final weeks of his senatorial campaign, Mr. Murphy had been feeling rudderless. A profile in a local paper had labeled him a “middle of the pack” politician and Mr. Murphy wondered if the journalist was right. “I knew that the driving, personal connection to a cause or an issue that drove many of my colleagues had eluded me,” he later wrote in his book, “The Violence Inside Us.” 

Sandy Hook changed everything. After the massacre, in which 20 first graders and six staff members were killed, President Barack Obama signed almost two dozen executive actions on guns. But legislation out of Congress proved elusive. A 2013 Senate effort led by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey to extend background checks for most gun sales came close to passing, but ultimately fell six votes short. 

Over the years, Mr. Murphy took on more of a leadership role. Following back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio, in 2019 that left 32 people dead, he began negotiating with then-Attorney General Bill Barr and President Donald Trump on legislation to ensure background checks for all commercial gun sales. Those efforts stalled as the Trump White House became consumed by the president’s first impeachment. 

Then came May 2022. A gunman in Buffalo, New York, killed 10 people in a grocery store, and less than two weeks later came Uvalde. When the news broke, Mr. Murphy took to the Senate floor for an impromptu speech that went viral, in which he repeated to his colleagues: “What are we doing?”

“Why are we here, if not to solve a problem as existential as this?” he demanded.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act includes $750 million for states to implement red flag laws, which would allow courts to remove deadly weapons from individuals when necessary. It also includes an enhanced screening process for gun buyers under the age of 21, as well as billions of dollars for mental health and school safety, and closes the “boyfriend loophole” – to prevent people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun for a period of time.

Mr. Murphy believes it’s a valuable set of measures. But it’s also just a start.

“I feel really guilty that I didn’t work on this issue before Sandy Hook, because I was in Congress and it was already an epidemic,” he says. “It’s all patently absurd to me that parents have to talk to their kids about active shooter drills. These conversations only happen in the United States – and I just refuse to accept that we accept this as the new normal.”

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor

“On gun control, Senator Murphy has been with us the whole time,” says Joan Hammond (left), a retired business manager, sitting alongside Mary Weber (center), a retired dental hygienist, and Henrietta Small (right), a social worker, at a town hall event for Sen. Chris Murphy on July 5, 2022, in Litchfield, Connecticut.

“Change is now possible”

In Connecticut, many gun safety advocates speak of the senator like a family member or longtime friend. 

Erica Lafferty says Mr. Murphy has been a constant presence in her life for the past decade. Both were at the fire station after the Sandy Hook shooting, at the top of the winding drive to the rebuilt elementary school that’s now equipped with buzzers and cameras and gates. When Ms. Lafferty and her sister arrived there looking for their mother, Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, a man in tactical gear directed them to a room with dozens of parents. 

“I kept thinking, there are so many people in here; this must be where we’ll find Mom,” recalls Ms. Lafferty. “But then I saw EMTs come in and I was like, this is not the room where we find our people. This is the room where we get some terrible news.”

Ms. Lafferty now works as a program manager at Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the largest gun control advocacy groups in the country.

She would have liked to see more measures included in last month’s bill – such as enhanced background checks and secure gun storage. But she characterizes it as “a huge collection of so many great first steps.”

“They would have done more if they could have, but it’s not just their decision. They had to convince 60 people,” agrees Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence. “This is a historic moment in our country. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

Still, the act has gotten criticism from the left. Some gun safety activists have pointed to the mass shooting on the Fourth of July at a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, as evidence that the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act didn’t go nearly far enough in regulating gun ownership.  

Three women sitting in the front row at a town hall with Senator Murphy in Litchfield say they thought the package should have included an assault weapons ban.

“I was a little disappointed to tell you the truth,” says social worker Henrietta Small. “It’s barely a start,” adds retired dental hygienist Mary Weber. 

Mr. Murphy is aware of this criticism.

“I will defend the bill. I think the bill will save thousands of lives. I think the bill is worth supporting even if you think you’re never going to pass another gun bill,” says Mr. Murphy. “It’s not enough – but there’s no social change movement in this country that got everything they wanted in the first bill they passed.”

He’s hopeful that now there will be momentum to build on. Once Republicans learn they won’t be voted out of office for passing gun safety measures that most voters approve of, he says, “they’ll be back for more.” Maybe it could even lead to compromises on other types of bills. 

“I’m confident that we’ve crossed a Rubicon, where change is now possible in the future that wasn’t possible prior to this getting done.”

Skepticism on the right

That’s exactly Chris Byrne’s fear. 

Mr. Byrne owns Stonehill Kennel in Goshen, a rural part of Connecticut that President Trump won by 12 percentage points in 2020. Mr. Murphy stopped by on his walk, and the two men chatted about oil prices, the economy – and of course, guns.  

Afterward, Mr. Byrne, in a red sleeveless shirt and with a long gray beard and sunglasses on his bald head, commended the Democratic senator for visiting and for showing “genuine interest” in his business. 

“I respect what he’s doing, and I think more senators should do stuff like this,” says Mr. Byrne, motioning to the winding road above his driveway where the senator had continued his walk. “But sometimes he infuriates me when I’m watching TV. … I’m a Second Amendment supporter, so personally, I think you should be able to have a gun unless you’re a criminal.” 

Many Democrats and Republicans alike say an absolutist mentality on both sides has worked to block compromise over the years on guns. 

Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina who was part of the core negotiating team alongside Mr. Murphy, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, says Mr. Murphy put it best.

“He said, ‘Forever, Democrats have said it’s all or nothing, and Republicans have said it’s all or nothing. And what we’ve got for 30 years is nothing.’ And so I think he genuinely went in with an open mind and a desire to make some progress,” says Senator Tillis outside his office in Washington. 

Also key was the fact that the team had someone “with Chris’ credibility” to sell the package to the Democratic caucus, Mr. Tillis adds. And all four senators were willing to put their reputations on the line for a bipartisan package they knew would likely frustrate some of their own supporters. 

“There was something unique about the partnership of the four of us,” agrees Mr. Murphy. “But the biggest reason for the breakthrough is that Republicans had just decided it was in their interest to vote for a compromise, in a way that they had not in any other moment since Sandy Hook.”  

“You can’t force a compromise to happen if the politics aren’t there,” he continues. “In order for there to be a breakthrough on immigration, Republicans have to believe that there is a political upside to voting for something controversial. For there to be a breakthrough on entitlement reform, Democrats have to believe that there’s a political benefit to voting for changes in Social Security or Medicare.”

Nothing in Washington happens apart from politics – but politics are subject to events, and events can change, as Mr. Murphy well knows. So what does he think about the political buzz that’s been surrounding him ever since the bill’s passage, including rumors that he might run for president?

“The short answer is, I’m very confident that Joe Biden is running again and I’m going to be an enthusiastic supporter.” He pauses. “The longer answer is that, at some point in my life, that might interest me.”

Crossing a state, and a political divide

By week’s end, Mr. Murphy will have traveled almost 70 miles – less than he’s done in years past, before a knee injury made him start traversing his state vertically rather than horizontally. 

He’s enthusiastically discussing running, music, and his preteen sons when a campaign staffer pulls up in a sedan. But with the conversation about to wrap up, Mr. Murphy stops. Something has been on his mind all day. 

Back at Mr. Byrne’s kennel, before the rain had started, an employee had reacted to the senator’s impromptu visit with notable animosity. When Mr. Murphy asked the man if he supported former President Trump, he retorted, “Well, I’m an American.” Mr. Murphy chose to ignore the comment because, he says, he didn’t want the conversation to “get to a bad place.” 

“And I’ve been kicking myself since then. Because I think the way you solve that is to engage, right?” he continues. To “try to find a recognition that we have a lot more common ground. Was there a way for me to engage on that question, in a respectful way that would have helped the situation?” 

Without answering his own question, the senator then says goodbye and turns to walk alone down a gravel road under a canopy of wet leaves. He still has a few more miles to cover before the sun sets. 

Part 2: In his own words: Senator Murphy on guns, democracy, and 2024

Read More

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