In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., started pushing for major reforms to curb the cycle of gun violence disrupting daily life throughout the U.S.
While progress was slow over the past decade due to a gridlocked Congress, the work of Murphy, other lawmakers, and advocates culminated over the summer in the first gun safety bill to pass in almost 30 years: the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
But a number of reforms – universal background checks and an assault weapons ban – remain elusive at the federal level. Ten years after the Sandy Hook shooting, Murphy, activists and gun violence survivors hope for future breakthroughs on more priorities
The following conversation with Murphy for Connecticut Public’s Cutline has been edited and condensed for clarity:
We’re now ten years out from the Sandy Hook school shooting and a lot has happened. What has and hasn’t changed? Can you reflect on the healing process over the past decade?
Murphy: I think it’s really hard to put into words what happens to a community when something like this happens. Newtown was a wonderful place before the shooting. It’s still a wonderful place, but it’s changed. There’s still a lot of pain and a lot of hurt. There’s a lot of trauma in Newtown. There’s also been a lot of grace. So many of these families have put their energies into starting up nonprofits and organizations to try to help those in need and that’s made a big difference.
Newtown is showing a lot of love for those families and it’s healed, but it’ll never be back to what it was. So Newtown is a different place, a changed place, for better and for worse. And I think the country is obviously very changed. What happened in Newtown changed the politics and the culture of this country. It set in motion a political movement determined to try to make sense of the nation’s gun laws. But it also set off the gun lobby in a pretty radical direction that it has not yet come back from. Both the community and the country are very different places since that awful day in December of 2012.
The state passed a law after Sandy Hook that strengthened the state’s assault weapons ban and required background checks for all firearm purchases. Has that law been effective in preventing gun violence? Would you like to see more done at the state level?
Murphy: I was so proud of what Connecticut did in the wake of Sandy Hook. We already had pretty tough gun laws in Connecticut, but they weren’t tough enough. There were still too many loopholes. What Connecticut did was remarkable, in part because it was bipartisan. The gun lobby opposed everything that was happening in Hartford, but Republicans came together with Democrats and passed legislation that did make a difference.
Connecticut has among the lowest gun homicide rates in the nation. And that is due in part to our gun laws. There’s just no doubt that in this state it is harder to get your hands on an illegal weapon. It’s harder to get your hands on an assault weapon. And that means that we have safer communities, safer schools. Nothing will get us back those kids that died in Sandy Hook. But we know that there’s a lower chance you’re going to die of a gun death or gun homicide in Connecticut because we’ve chosen to make our laws some of the strongest in the nation.
I think what’s important in Connecticut is not just that we have strong gun laws, but that there’s not a lot of complaints from gun owners that our laws are too tough. You can still get a gun in Connecticut if you want one for the protection of your home or you want to shoot or hunt. The gun laws in Connecticut are tough, but they’re not so tough that people can’t exercise their Second Amendment rights.
Anything else at the state level that you’d like to see or you’re more focused at this point on federal law?
Murphy: Connecticut right now is in the process of improving its red flag laws. It just passed an update and we now need to put that into action. Connecticut’s had a red flag law, but we haven’t used it as much as we should. There are probably a lot of people who are showing signs of danger to themselves or others that should have their weapons temporarily taken away.
Laws like that that are really working in places like Florida are saving lots of lives. Connecticut can do better when it comes to the administration of its red flag laws. And I think that you’ll see that happen in the next coming years.
It’s taken years for Congress to act and pass major gun reforms. We’ve seen this repeated cycle of calls for change, followed by inaction. What was different this time after the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings earlier this year?
Murphy: I think it’s so dispiriting and so tragic that the only time Congress talks about changing our gun laws is after mass shootings. The fact of the matter is there’s a hundred people dying every single day from guns and we should wait until there’s a mass shooting to talk about national change. But the reality is that these conversations in Washington about changing our gun laws, they do tend to occur after a mass shooting.
From the outside, it looked like we were doing nothing – mass shooting after mass shooting. What was actually happening is that we were getting closer to passing something substantial after each mass shooting, whether it was Las Vegas or Orlando or Parkland or El Paso. We had a more serious conversation with more Republican partners.
Up until 2022, we never had enough Republican partners in order to pass the law, but we were recruiting more and more year after year. The gun safety movement was getting stronger and stronger, and so  was different only because it was the tipping point. It was the moment at which we had achieved such cumulative strength over time that we were finally able to pass something. We had more volunteers. We had more activists. We had more money on the outside. But we also finally had just enough Republican partners on the inside after building up those partnerships over ten years to get something serious done.
One of the more unexpected parts of the bipartisan bill was going beyond federal law and having those who are convicted for domestic abuse not being able to obtain a firearm. Can you give us more insight into how that got in the negotiations and how it ultimately passed with the bill?
Murphy: This is one of the biggest loopholes in existing federal law. Under the existing law, if you were convicted of any domestic violence crime against your spouse, against your wife, you would have your guns taken away. But if you were convicted of a domestic violence crime against your girlfriend or against your domestic partner, there were lots of circumstances in which you could keep your guns. That makes no sense.
Broadly, Americans, Republicans and Democrats agree that if you’re convicted of a domestic violence crime, you should lose your gun rights. This was a hard thing to get done because this is a big population of people who have been convicted of crimes against a dating partner and the gun lobby did not want to lose the ability to sell guns to those people.
But ultimately, we had Republicans who were willing to work with us because they just couldn’t go home and explain why they were going to stand in the way of stopping domestic abusers from getting guns. I give a lot of credit to [Sen.] Kyrsten Sinema. Kyrsten Sinema was one of the four negotiating partners. She was a domestic violence counselor before she went into politics. And so she came to these meetings with these stories of the fear that women lived under, knowing that their dating partner could still keep their guns even after a conviction. And it was her doggedness at that negotiating table that helped us get that provision into the final law.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was signed into law in June. What changes and funding are communities going to start seeing? Some of the money has gone out to states to implement or increase mental health services. What exactly does that look like for states like Connecticut and around the country?
Murphy: The bipartisan Safer Communities Act is known for the changes in gun laws, but it actually has $15 billion in funding for mental health school and community safety. People don’t really know what those numbers mean in Washington speak – that’s a lot of money. And it’s going to allow us to open up dozens of new mental health clinics all across the country. It’s going to mean lots of new school counselors and social workers to help troubled kids. And it’s going to put a lot of money into anti-gun violence initiatives in our cities. Often initiatives that are targeting these cycles of violence.
That money is being rolled out as we speak. We’re having this conversation in Hartford. Hartford just got an award from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that is going to go to community groups that work in the North End and the South End to try to interrupt the cycles of violence. Schools are about to get new grants from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to hire more counselors. This money is right now being moved out the door to communities, and it’s going to allow them to wrap services around kids that are in trouble.
Listen, I’m somebody that doesn’t believe our gun violence problem is primarily a mental health problem. But there’s no doubt that if you get more services to kids in crisis, it will lead to some lower levels of violence. But it will also just lead to healthier kids and healthier families. And so the Bipartisan for Communities Act is a victory just for mental health. Separate and aside from what it does to try to dampen gun violence rates.
The bill doesn’t include some major Democratic priorities like restoring the federal assault weapons ban or implementing universal background checks. What’s the future for further gun reforms? How are you going to reassure people that change will eventually come even if it’s a while?
Murphy: There were some naysayers that said you shouldn’t give Republicans a win on guns until they’re willing to vote for everything – bans on assault weapons, universal background checks. That’s just not how politics work. It’s not how change movements work. You don’t get everything all at once. You make progress, and you have faith that when people see the results of that progress, they’ll want more.
And when your opponents vote with you, they will see that the sky doesn’t fall. We need to sort of prove that the people that voted for this law on the Republican side can succeed politically. And I think you saw in the midterm election that voters still have guns as a top of mind issue. The exit polls in the midterm election show that by a wide margin, voters want tougher gun laws. And of those that want tougher gun laws, which is the majority of voters, they were voting broadly for Democrats. And Republicans will see that, you know.
I don’t want these gun safety measures to pass with only Democratic votes. I want Republicans to join us. And the midterm election results are proof that it’s really hard to win in swing states and swing districts in this country if you’re voting against gun safety laws, and that will be a benefit to the movement.
What do you see as the future of some of those priorities for you? As you’re starting to try to keep or build back majorities in Congress, what do you see as the next thing?
Murphy: I think you don’t necessarily know what’s next until opportunity knocks. So we will see what the next step is that Republicans are willing to take. But I think after these midterm elections, they will be more willing to engage in conversations about tougher gun laws.
Obviously, for me, I want universal background checks and I still think that that’s a pretty easy lift for Republicans. Comprehensive background checks saying every gun sale has to come with a background check that’s supported by 90% of Americans, so it doesn’t take a lot of political courage to vote for something that has that kind of public support. That would be the place where I would like to continue to push the bipartisan cooperation.
Polling has shown that a majority of Americans want things like universal background checks. But also we’ve seen surging gun sales since 2020. And there are some Americans who see reforms as infringing on their rights. How do you try to break the partisanship on an issue like this?
Murphy: There’s just a lot of lying that goes on inside the gun industry and the gun lobby. If you go on to the NRA’s social media or their website, you’ll see them making these outlandish claims about how Democrats want to confiscate your weapons and confiscate your ammunition, and so you should load up and buy more before the Democrats come and take it away from you. All of that is just marketing. And unfortunately, it has worked on a very small subset of Americans.
The reality is there’s still a much lower percentage of American households that have a gun today than did 20 years ago. What’s happening is that a very small number of Americans are buying lots and lots of weapons. So today, half the weapons in America are owned by 3% of Americans. So when you see these numbers of all the guns being sold in this country, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a lot of families that didn’t have a gun that were going out and buying guns. That’s happening to an extent. But really what’s happening is that a small number of Americans are just buying more and more and more and more weapons. Not all of those people are dangerous, but some of them are. And that’s what we really have to watch and track.
While you were serving in the House, your district included Newtown and then the shooting happened not very long after you were elected to the U.S. Senate. How has this shaped you and your time in Congress?
Murphy: My political career is very much a before and after story from the shooting at Sandy Hook. I now have this passion project, this issue that motivates me every single day, in part because it happened in my district, but also because I’ve formed relationships since the winter of 2012 with those families in Sandy Hook, but also families in Hartford and New Haven and Bridgeport, families that I should have known before Sandy Hook, but I now know and count as close friends. Families that lost their sons and daughters to gun violence that didn’t make the national headlines.
So to me, this is an issue that motivates me. It’s an issue that I feel like I’ve got to make a difference on. I’m very happy that we have finally broken through, we’re not done. We can’t rest until we’ve passed things like universal background checks. We’ve got these assault weapons off the streets. And I will continue to judge the success of my time in politics by a measure of how well we do in securing the country from the plague of gun violence.
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.