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Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy Discusses The Path Forward For Gun Policy


After the shooting in Parkland, Fla., the nation is once again in the middle of another intense debate about gun violence. One of the leading voices in that debate is Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. In 2012, he had just been elected to the Senate when 27 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his home state. It was a transformative moment for Chris Murphy. Reminders of that day are visible as soon as you walk into his Senate office. The walls are painted bright green, Sandy Hook's color. And there's a plaque on the wall.

CHRIS MURPHY: The plaque is - those are the names of the kids - you know, just another small way for, you know, us to be reminded of what our primary mission is here.

CHANG: Twenty first-graders were killed in Sandy Hook. And after the shooting, their parents met with lawmaker after lawmaker. For many people watching, it seemed if gun control laws were ever going to pass, this would be it; this would be the moment. But every proposal failed. I asked Senator Murphy for his take on why.

MURPHY: They were ready - the gun lobby was - for those parents, and they took them down. Every single vote failed because they had more political power than we did. Since Sandy Hook, we have been gradually, year by year, accumulating more and more political power, more activists, more money. I don't think there's going to be a tipping point where one shooting changes the debate. People are right. If Sandy Hook didn't do that, why would anything else? This is just a matter of political power dynamics. We need more power. We'll get it, and we'll eventually be as strong as the gun lobby.

CHANG: Well, what laws would you ask for? If you could magically get any law through Congress, any law through the White House, what is your wish list? Give me your top two or three priorities.

MURPHY: The good news is there's no mystery as to what works. I would hope people would just follow the Connecticut story. In Connecticut, we have passed some of the strongest anti-gun-violence laws in the nation. We don't restrict anybody's Second Amendment rights. And we've seen a 40 percent reduction in gun crimes in our state. That's remarkable in a short period of time. What we do in Connecticut is ban assault weapons. We ban high-capacity magazines. We have true universal background checks, and we require everybody to get a permit from their police department before they can carry a pistol.

CHANG: Well, let's start with background checks. Even if background checks were extended universally, even if the database were shored up, the system still wouldn't scoop up a sea of people out there who are troubled, angry, socially isolated and possibly prone to violence.

MURPHY: No one law will solve this problem, so we can't be held to the test that if one law doesn't solve every problem, it's not worth doing. The reality is that every single day in this country, 90 people die from guns. It's not just the mass shootings. It's what happens in Chicago and New Orleans. Background checks applied universally and nationally would take millions of illegal guns off the streets of our cities. It wouldn't have stopped somebody like Adam Lanza. But there are other laws that can try to address these incidences of mass violence.

CHANG: Adam Lanza was the shooter at Sandy Hook.

MURPHY: That's right.

CHANG: Let's talk about the assault weapons ban. I mean, one of the main weaknesses of the 1994 assault weapons ban is that it was easy to circumvent. You could cosmetically modify a weapon so it would no longer fall under the law. What would your assault weapons ban look like to avoid such easy circumvention?

MURPHY: Well, I would argue that the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban worked. There are studies that suggest it reduced episodes of mass violence, right?

CHANG: Well, the data's not conclusive, or it's controversial whether it's clear.

MURPHY: Well, I would argue that if you look at the number of mass shootings in which large numbers of people died, they spiked after the assault weapons ban expired. And I am pretty sure that if Adam Lanza couldn't have gotten his hands on an assault weapon, at the very least, there would be more kids still alive in Sandy Hook. Or maybe he would have never walked into that school in the first place.

CHANG: There are probably a lot of people on the other side of this debate who see you as a guy who grew up in Connecticut, who went to some fancy schools in New England, who just is totally disconnected from their way of life. For them, this whole issue isn't just about guns. It's about identity and culture. It's about people like you not being able to tell them how to lead their life. What have you done to try to understand the people on the other side of this fight?

MURPHY: Well, you know, there aren't a lot of people on the other side of this fight. It's a popular myth projected by the NRA that out there in America, this issue is controversial. Background checks, which is my life's work, I think the most important intervention that we can make, is supported by 97 percent of Americans. Even the least-generous polls have it supported by 85 to 90 percent. And so I sort of reject the notion that this is a controversial issue outside of Washington at least with respect to background checks. Assault weapons is certainly different.

CHANG: What I hear a lot on the other side, on the gun rights side is that the right to self-defense isn't just some right that's enshrined in the Second Amendment. It's a right that falls under natural law. I often hear the phrase it's a God-given right. I'm wondering, how do you negotiate with that argument?

MURPHY: You know, I would respectfully disagree that the right to own a military-style weapon is a God-given right. I didn't see that anywhere in the Bible that I read. I think these are constitutional questions. There is a Second Amendment - no way around it. But Justice Scalia in writing the Heller decision which grants individuals the constitutional right to own a gun says very clearly that the Constitution also allows for Congress to regulate the type of person that owns a gun or the type of gun that you can own. That's what the Supreme Court says, and that ultimately is the law that I have to obey.

CHANG: Since you've been elected to the Senate, you've seen Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland and many more shootings in between. There's been virtually no movement on gun control legislation in that time. What keeps you going?

MURPHY: The worst day of my political career was the day that the background checks bill failed in the Senate.

CHANG: April 2013.

MURPHY: The Sandy Hook parents started out that debate thinking that they were going to get a ban on assault weapons. They didn't think they were going to have to settle for a debate on background checks. And to walk out of that Senate chamber and see those parents and tell them that we had failed, it was just awful. And one of the parents grabbed me, and I said, we'll keep going. And he said, listen; I didn't become an advocate for four months. I'm an advocate for 40 years. And it's those parents who inspire me to keep going.

Great social change movements, the ones that change this country, are the ones that persevere even when they get handed defeat over and over and over again. We've had a lot of defeat. I would argue we've had some victories, too. We've seen progress out there in the states. We haven't seen as much progress in Washington. But I'm not going anywhere. Those families in Sandy Hook aren't. So as long as they're in it, I'm in it.

CHANG: Senator Murphy, thank you very much.

MURPHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.