Sen. Chris Murphy returns to a hero's welcome by gun safety advocates. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Chris Murphy flew home Friday in rumpled gray jeans and a blue dress shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, eyes bleary. He didn’t wait in Washington for final passage of America’s first significant gun safety law in three decades, one that he negotiated and shepherded to passage late Thursday in the Senate.

“We worked last night after the bill passed to try to land it cleanly in the House today. Obviously, the bill text came out late. So we had a lot of work last night to talk through the bill with members of the House,” Murphy said. “But yeah, I just wanted to be back here today to celebrate with the folks in Connecticut who made all this possible.”

Outside a community boathouse on the Connecticut River in Hartford, a short and convenient ride on I-91 from Bradley International Airport, those “folks” waited for a moment with Connecticut’s junior senator. His time in the Senate has been marked by legislative inaction on guns, bookended by the slaughter of children in Connecticut and Texas.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the 10 Democrats in the working group led by Murphy, already was taking questions from reporters when Murphy arrived. Murphy seemed in no hurry, stopping for hugs and handshakes, leaning in for selfies.

Chris Murphy poses for a selfie with a gun control advocate Friday. Mark Pazniokas

There would be questions about what’s next, about whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s emboldened conservative majority already had preemptively showed signs of limiting what Congress can do on guns, even when the evenly divided Senate votes 65-33 on a Thursday night to pass a bipartisan gun safety measure, followed by final passage Friday on a 234-193 vote in the House.

“I know Washington and the political punditry constantly wants to look to what’s next,” Murphy said. “I’m focused on what we did, and how that’s gonna save thousands of lives. Of course, it’s not enough. But no social movements get everything they want in their first piece of legislation. I’m glad that people are eager for the next step.”

But Murphy was not among them, not on the first Friday of summer. 

On a day when much of America and its short news cycles already had moved on, assessing how the same conservative majority court had just upended a half century of settled law on abortion, Murphy wanted to stay focused on the people he’s met in nearly a decade trying and, until this week, failing to address the nearly uniquely American problem of mass shootings.

They waited by the river, decked in the red, green, orange T-shirts of the groups born or grown since Sandy Hook — Newtown Action Alliance in green, Moms Demand Action in red, Connecticut Against Gun Violence in orange. Counselors from Hartford Communities That Care wore blue polo shirts, embroidered with their logo, HCTC, while those from Compass Youth were in orange.

There was a slender white girl in green named Nicole Melchionno. She is 17 and speaks in public now, though for a long, long time she clung to her parents. On Dec. 14, 2012, she was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School, one of the second-graders who went home that day to crazed and grateful parents. 

Twenty of her classmates did not. Murphy, then a senator-elect who had represented Sandy Hook in the U.S. House for six years, witnessed their parents getting the news in a firehouse down the hill from the school, a scene he only obliquely described in his book about violence in America. 

From that day, Murphy’s consuming issue has been gun violence, gun safety, gun control. Time and again, he’s failed them. He is a believer that time and history were on their side, but movements need progress, an occasional win, to nourish them. They, and Murphy, had been conditioned to failure.

“The last couple of years in this movement have been difficult,” Murphy said. “When a movement gets to be seven or eight years old, without a big victory at the national level, it’s sometimes becomes hard to stay in. And so I think this movement was getting to the point where we needed to show success.” 

Carl Hardrick, who has worked on Hartford streets for decades to cool gang tensions and other beefs, came to celebrate. He is 80 and recently lost a grandson, a young man shot to death. His friend, Andrew Woods of Hartford Communities That Care, a program that works through St. Francis Hospital with gun victims, was also there.

Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal with Nicole Melchionno, a survivor of Sandy Hook. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Henry Brown was there, too, hard to miss. He is big and Black and very loud. He is a Hartford street preacher and anti-violence activist, and he preached a hard sermon to Murphy soon after Sandy Hook. It was about the failure of a young, white and newly elected senator to pay attention to urban shootings.

There is an unflinching account of Brown’s public upbraiding of Murphy in the book he published in 2020, “The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy.” 

Brown, wearing shorts and sweating profusely under the midday sun, was all smiles Friday. The bipartisan bill, now on its way to a promised signature by President Biden. Brown has no illusions about the new law ending violence, not at the front end of a hot summer.

But it offers hope, along with money for community behavioral health programs and to implement red flag laws that allow authorities to seize guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. It requires more exhaustive background checks for gun buyers under age 21, increases penalties for gun trafficking, and closes the “boyfriend loophole” by denying guns to unmarried partners in domestic violence cases, not just spouses.

“You know, we’ve been looking for hope for a long time,” Brown said. “And now this is a symbol of hope for people in our community, Black and brown people. So on that note, I just want to thank you, because 10 years ago I didn’t see there’s hope. Five years ago, I didn’t see there’s hope. Getting to wake up today, and know that hope is on the horizon, man, I celebrated all morning. And if I was a drinker, I would’ve had a stiff drink this morning.”

There was laughter Friday.

And on Thursday night in Washington, there was applause.

“In the galleries last night were families who have endured this unspeakable grief,” Blumenthal said. “But unlike almost 10 years ago, they weren’t shouting, ‘Shame!’ after we failed. Last night, they were celebrating.”

Murphy gave a quick nod to what was missing from the bill, particularly universal background checks to purchase firearms and restrictions on the high-capacity magazines and military-style rifles used in Sandy Hook and more recently in Uvalde, Texas.

“Does this bill include everything that Dick Blumenthal and I support and the people in this room support?” Murphy said. “No. But this bill saves lives. And this bill will prove to Republicans that there is no political price to be paid for voting for gun safety. There is just political gain.”

Some of Republicans who voted for the bill are not seeking reelection, but Murphy’s negotiating partner was Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican with ambitions to become the Senate majority leader. And the current Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, supported passage.

“Mitch McConnell wasn’t shy yesterday to talk about the fact that he got on board with this bill, in part because he thought it was very good politics,” Murphy said. “And Mitch McConnell didn’t think that 10 years ago, Mitch McConnell 10 years ago, he was very confident, loudly opposing changes in gun laws because he thought that was good politics for his party. Things have changed.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.