Monday’s mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, which left at least seven people dead, is just the latest entry in America’s shameful tradition of gun violence.
Not even a month into the new year, the US has endured at least 40 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, putting 2023 on pace to have the most mass shootings at this point of any year on record.
The bipartisan gun safety bill signed into law last summer brought modest changes to the country’s gun legislation, but it didn’t touch assault rifles, the weapon of choice for many mass shooters.
Yet it’s not all hopeless. Following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Sen. Chris Murphy has made gun safety legislation his life’s work, and he’s forecasting a sea change on the horizon.
We spoke with the Connecticut Democrat on Tuesday about US gun culture, reform and what he hopes this year will bring. Our conversation, conducted over the phone and lightly edited for flow and brevity, is below.
LEBLANC: I want to start with your reaction to the spate of recent mass shootings – 39 so far this year. What does this speak to?
MURPHY: It speaks to an enormous sickness in America. This is the only country in the world where men who are having breaks with reality exercise their demons through mass slaughter.
We’re not the only place in the world with mental illness. We’re not the only place in the world where people are paranoid. But only in America are we so casual about access to weapons of mass destruction and only in America do we fetishize violence so much that we end up with all the mass shootings.
So we’re in a race right now. We’re passing more gun safety laws than ever before, but at the same time, more guns – and specifically more illegal and very dangerous guns – are flooding into our communities at a rate that we’ve never seen.
Right now, we’re saving a lot of lives with the laws that we’re passing. But the net effect is that the increased pace of sales and transfers is still leading to higher rates of violence.
LEBLANC: You’ve struck a note of optimism recently about the fight for common sense gun laws in the US. What’s driving that optimism?
MURPHY: There’s no doubt the laws that are being passed are saving lives. The bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed last summer, will save thousands of lives once it’s fully implemented.
And I know that it has already saved lives. I’ve gotten briefed by the FBI and they have shown me the incredibly dangerous people who would’ve gotten weapons in moments of crisis in their lives if not for the bill we passed last summer.
The bills being passed by state legislatures, most recently in places like New Jersey and Illinois, are going to save lives as well. But there are so many weapons in circulation already and there are so many states that have made their laws weaker, not stronger, over the last 10 years, that we’re not able to make the kind of impact we’d like.
LEBLANC: How do you go about engaging with folks who grew up around guns and are responsible with the guns they own? How do you convince that group that something like an assault weapon ban is a good idea?
MURPHY: People only are willing to support laws that work, and we need to make sure everyone understands how many fewer mass shootings we had during the 10 years that assault weapons were banned.
It’s just true that in states that have tighter gun laws, including assault weapons bans, there are far fewer gun deaths. It is also true that when the country decided to tighten its laws around assault weapons, we saw fewer mass shootings.
The NRA and the gun lobby have done a good job convincing a lot of gun owners that laws don’t work and that people are going to evade the law no matter what the statute says. That’s not true. Laws do work, and in particular, the assault weapons ban worked.
In Connecticut, we don’t sell assault weapons, but I frankly don’t get a lot of complaints from people in my state because they can still buy a powerful weapon to protect their home. They can still buy weapons to hunt or shoot for sport; collectors in Connecticut still have access to a wide variety of firearms. I think we have to convince people that the sky is not going to fall if we ban assault weapons.
Finally, we also have to convince gun owners that there’s no secret agenda. The NRA and the gun lobby have done a good job of convincing people that my agenda and the movement’s agenda is gun confiscation. That’s a complete fabrication.
I think every gun should go through a background check. I think there are some guns that are too dangerous to sell in the commercial market. I don’t believe that we should limit people’s access broadly to firearms. I don’t think the Constitution permits that, and my side of the debate should be clear about what we want to do and what we have no intention of doing.
LEBLANC: I was going to ask you how you think the gun debate in America became so untethered from what the data tells us. It sounds like you’re saying the NRA and the gun lobby play a big role in that?
MURPHY: I think it’s more complicated than that. Since the days of Samuel Colt, America has had a very romantic relationship with firearms. For 150 plus years, weapons have been integrated into American identity and American mythology.
Today, it is true that many Americans believe that their access to American ideals like freedom and liberty are connected to their unfettered access to firearms. And they believe that there’s something being robbed from them as a patriotic American if their gun rights are curtailed. So I think we have to accept that that’s powerful mythology, and it’s not new.
It wasn’t invented in the 1980s by Charlton Heston, you know; Samuel Colt and Winchester and Remington – they’ve been doing this since the 1860s. It’s a powerful force to push up against, and I think we have to accept that guns are always going to be a big part of American culture.
Guns are going to be an important element of growing up in a lot of American families. But you can still have guns be a big part of the American culture without people having access to AR-15s, while making sure that only law abiding citizens own guns.
LEBLANC: There’s been a lot discussion from medical professionals about re-framing America’s gun debate as a public health crisis, not a political issue. Do you think a public health approach can help make inroads?
MURPHY: I think we have to step back and understand the true cost of our gun violence problem. We often refer to the problem in terms of the number of people who die every day. And that number – 110-plus – is extraordinary.
But I visited a low-income school in my neighborhood of Hartford, a neighborhood with high rates of violence, last fall. And I sat down with a group of eighth graders. All they wanted to talk to me about was their walk to school and how dangerous it was and how it consumed their day. Thinking about it, worrying about it.
We’re losing a whole generation of children in our violent neighborhoods because their brains are being broken due to the everyday trauma of gun violence and the worry that they’ll be next. And that’s not to even mention the fact that every kid in this country, regardless of how violent their neighborhood is now, has to go through active shooter drills at school, and there’s a trauma to that.
So I think we have to understand how fragile child brains are and how damaging exposure to violence is to these kids. It’s just not a coincidence that the low-performing schools in this country tend to all be in the most violent neighborhoods.
LEBLANC: What would make 2023 a successful year in the fight against gun violence in your view? New legislation? Cultural shifts?
MURPHY: Obviously I want to keep building on our success on the federal level. I understand that this House Republican majority is going to be a dumpster fire. They’re not likely to going to be able to pass anything, never mind, gun legislation.
But I’m going to try to find common ground. I look at an issue like the safe storage of firearms and think that there’s certainly potential for bipartisan agreement.
I want to implement the 2022 law as well – that’s five major changes in American gun laws and a lot of money for safer communities and anti-gun violence programming. So I want to make sure the administration vigorously implements that law.
I’d like to see more state law changes. Connecticut is likely to take up some new legislation. Other states like Michigan will do the same. So I’d like to see state progress.
Lastly, I just want to continue to grow the movement. I think right now the gun safety movement is stronger than the gun lobby, but it’s a close call. And so we’ll continue to grow more volunteers, raise more money, be more active in campaigns.
That’s a trend that’s been ongoing over the last decade and I want to continue in 2023.