The first anniversary of the first federal gun control law passed in nearly 30 years was celebrated Friday at the University of Hartford as a tipping point in American politics by President Joe Biden and one of the measure’s key sponsors, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Biden, who came to Connecticut as vice president a decade ago to mourn the losses at Sandy Hook and address a symposium on gun violence, said the gun lobby that blocked federal legislation then was just as unrelenting a year ago. He paused, leaned forward and said, “And we beat them.”

The day-long summit organized by Murphy marked passage of a law titled the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, but there was little bipartisanship at the event headlined by two Democrats, an 80-year-old president and a 49-year-old senator seeking reelection in 2024.

Sen. Chris Murphy speaks at the National Safer Communities Summit that he organized at the University of Hartford on Friday, June 16, 2023. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

While one of the recurring messages at the National Safer Communities Summit was that gun safety measures now are supported overwhelmingly by American voters in states of every hue, the president and senator clearly believe guns remain a potent wedge issue in campaigns.

“There were some Republican hearts that softened, but mostly that outcome a year ago this month was just an exercise in sheer brute political force,” Murphy told the audience at the invitation-only event.

A campaign manager before he ever sought office, Murphy practices politics as an organizer, a man who knows the importance of keeping a focus on what’s next and the necessity of celebrating victories, especially in a movement more familiar with failure than success.  

“I think that you can see that in other movements that look and feel like ours over the years — the civil rights movement, the marriage equality movement — there is a moment where, all of a sudden, the change agents have the power,” Murphy said.

President Joe Biden greets U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, and Gov. Ned Lamont after landing at Bradley International Airport on his way to the National Safer Communities Summit at University of Hartford, June 16, 2023. Tyler Russell / CT Public

That moment was Uvalde, the Texas school shooting that provided a frightening echo of the tragedy that put Murphy at the movement’s forefront: the mass shooting of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary a decade earlier.

Biden sounded the same theme.

“I believe we’ve reached a tipping point in this nation. I really do, swear to God,” Biden said. “As Sen. Murphy says, success begets success.”

The law provides $15 billion in funding for anti-violence groups, whose counselors work the streets. 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.

But it does not follow Connecticut’s lead of banning the sale of AR-15s and certain other weapons and requiring universal background checks for the purchase of firearms and ammunition and strict rules regarding their safe storage.

Murphy promised those measures were coming, maybe after the next election. Or the one after that.

“I just have no question that in the next several congresses, whether it’s this year or not, we are going to pass everything that we’ve been talking about here today, including an assault weapons ban, including universal background checks,” Murphy said.

Biden shared his optimism but suggested that delivering those things would require what disappeared not long after passage: A Democratic majority in the House.

“We need a new Congress,” Biden said.

The summit was carefully choreographed, providing roles for the myriad national gun safety groups that have flourished since Sandy Hook and one that preceded them by three decades, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. It was a place to salute heroes of a movement.

Gabby Giffords, the former congressman wounded in a shooting who then founded a gun control group, struck a defiant tone after walking haltingly to the microphone. 

An early speaker was Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana Grace was among the victims at Sandy Hook. She was accompanied by her husband, Jimmy Greene, the musician she met while attending the University of Hartford. The school also was where they hosted a meal for mourners after their daughter’s funeral.

The panel discussions reflected how the movement has changed, broadened and redefined itself about gun safety, not gun control. Speakers talked about prevention, intervention and mental health. Some came from urban communities that once bristled at their losses being overlooked.

The book Murphy published three years ago, “The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy,” addresses racial inequity as much as violence and includes an unflinching account of a Black minister dismissing Murphy as a white dilettante on the issue of gun violence.

One panel featured Murphy, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, whose election is frequently cited by Murphy as evidence changing attitudes towards gun control. McBath is a Democrat elected in 2018 to the seat once held by Newt Gingrich of Georgia. McBath’s son was shot to death, and her central issue was gun safety.

“You know, I am a Black woman who ran in ruby-red Georgia on the number one policy was gun safety. And people said, ‘It is political suicide. Don’t do it. You can’t win. You’re talking about guns in Georgia.’ But now I’m not the only one talking about gun safety,” McBath said.

Biden left the University of Hartford, whose campus covers portions of West Hartford, Hartford and Bloomfield, for a big-ticket fundraiser at the home of billionaire hedge manager Stephen Mandel Jr. in Greenwich. Biden joked about his age, perhaps his biggest obstacle to reelection. He turns 81 in November and would be 86 at the end of a second term in the White House.

Unlike the previous speakers, Biden read from a teleprompter. His voice sounded rough at times but grew stronger as he became animated talking about the daily toll of gunfire.

“Every damn day!” he said.

The president saluted Gov. Ned Lamont for proposing and winning overwhelming passage of Connecticut’s first update to the Sandy Hook gun gun law this month. Among other things, it bans the open carry of firearms and strengthens a ban on AR-15s and other so-called assault weapons.

The Republican state chair, Ben Proto, denounced the governor, the president and the new Connecticut law.

“It is clear that Joe Biden is really coming to Connecticut to cheer-lead the trampling on of our citizens clear constitutional rights by a nearing tyrannical state government,” Proto tweeted.

Miguel Cardona, who within a decade rose from being a Meriden school principal to Lamont’s education commissioner to Biden’s secretary of education, was sharply political in delivering one of the keynote speeches. He recalled his reaction to Sandy Hook and the inability of Congress to pass legislation in its aftermath.

“I thought to myself, if we as a people normalize the slaughter of innocent children, then we have bigger problems on our hands. If we as a country care more about selling AR-15s than saving the lives of children, we lost our way,” Cardona said.

One of the day’s loudest ovations came when Cardona, his voice rising, added, “Please don’t get me started on the politicians pushing us to arm teachers, all right? These are the same politicians who don’t trust teachers to choose the right books for our classrooms.”

Overshadowing the celebration of the victory in Congress was an adverse 6-3 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a longstanding gun law in New York that required citizens to demonstrate a need to obtain a permit for carrying a handgun outside the home.

Keith Ellison, the attorney general of Minnesota, said the law is being used as the basis for numerous challenges of gun laws, with some early victories. Connecticut already is being sued over its new gun law.

President Biden lands at Bradley International Airport on his way to the National Safer Communities Summit at University of Hartford, June 16, 2023. Tyler Russell / CT Public

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.