POLITICS

Senator Chris Murphy Is Worried We’re Seeing Democracy’s Last Stand

Before 2012, Chris Murphy was a relatively unheralded Democratic representative from Connecticut. Then, in December of that year, Sandy Hook happened. In the soul-crushing aftermath of our country’s second-deadliest school shooting, Murphy, who took office as his state’s junior senator less than one month after the attack, found his guiding moral purpose as a politician. Since then, his forceful advocacy for increased gun control has turned Murphy, who is 47, into a nationally prominent figure, though lately Covid-19 has forced a shift in the senator’s immediate priorities. “The pandemic has fundamentally changed the political landscape because it is the one issue that matters to everyone,” said Murphy, author of “The Violence Inside Us,” a forthcoming nonfiction book about America’s bloody obsession with firearms. “It touches everyone’s life. But that doesn’t mean that the other perennial concerns that Americans care about disappear.”

In your book’s acknowledgments, you mention the “demoralizing daily cadence of political life in the age of Trump.” I know what that might mean for citizens. What does it mean for a senator? This job is not a lot of fun right now. You have a chief executive who is an administrative nightmare and intent on dividing us — it is exhausting. I have a real belief that democracy is unnatural. We don’t run anything important in our lives by democratic vote other than our government. Democracy is so unnatural that it’s illogical to think it would be permanent. It will fall apart at some point, and maybe that isn’t now, but maybe it is. So I feel like my job is to hold this together so that it survives to the next administration. That’s not the reason you go into any profession: to keep it from falling apart.

Chris Murphy greeting supporters after winning the Senate election in 2012.
Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters

If the job of a Democratic politician right now is to hold the country together, has your party leadership’s response to the White House’s handling of Covid-19 been forceful enough? It doesn’t feel as if Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi have turned themselves into crucial voices. It’s understandable for Biden to decide he’s going to let Trump self-immolate during the pandemic, but it’s another thing for the sitting leaders of the Democratic Party to do it. Right. Well, the Legislature as a branch is particularly ill-equipped to lead when faced with a public-health crisis that dodges and weaves in different ways every day. It’s probably unrealistic to believe that any legislative leader was going to be able to fill a vacuum created by the dysfunction of the White House because we can’t make decisions on how the C.D.C. or H.H.S. or D.H.S. reacts day to day. All we can do is provide those agencies with funding and guidelines. I hate the idea of this president running the medical supply chain for the next six months, but I know that Nancy Pelosi can’t and Chuck Schumer can’t. Only President Trump can. I’m stuck trying to advocate for him to increase his power.

There was this brief moment after the Parkland school shootings when President Trump seemed open to expanding background-check legislation. Did that window afford you any sense of his personal feelings about gun control? The most substantive conversation I had with him was in the middle of last summer. A group of us spent about 45 minutes on the phone with him talking about the outlines of a background-checks bill. He spent the biggest chunk of time talking about the bill’s title. Which sounds like the way he approaches every other issue. So no, I’ve never gotten a sense that he has any strong personal feelings about this. What I think is that he does have a political radar that doesn’t completely malfunction, and he did sense last summer that he had to at least entertain the idea of getting right on this issue. But once impeachment hit, it was clear that his pathway to political survival was to consolidate his base, and there was no way that he was going to do that if he started playing footsie with people like me.

Along those lines, how have your relationships with your Republican colleagues changed since 2016? These are people with whom I assume you were collegial. Are you still? I’m personally offended that people I held in high regard, even though they were of a different party, have chosen to give in to President Trump’s bullying and megalomania. The friendships and the conversations are more forced now. There’s more labor involved. In President Trump’s first two years, I did spend a lot of time talking to my Republican colleagues about him. I wanted to see where they were willing to break. I don’t do that much any longer, because they’ve answered the question. So now the conversations with my Republican colleagues are often devoid of much policy talk. I’m just trying to maintain the relationship. My colleagues are still going to be around in 2021, when we’re hopefully stitching democracy back together, and I’m going to need some of them to help do it.

The conversations are devoid of policy talk because you know that discussion would be fruitless? Let me take that back. Congress has been supremely functional when it comes to responding to the health crisis. We passed four major pieces of legislation. So we are spending a lot of time talking about Covid response. There’s not a lot of policy talk on immigration or guns or health care because it’s clear that they’re not going to break with the president on those topics. On guns, last summer, I had a number of my Republican colleagues call me and say: “I voted against Manchin-Toomey, but I’m willing to vote for it or some version of it this time around. But the president has to be for it first.” Their political fortune is tied to the president’s. Mitch McConnell made a decision long ago that his prospects of staying in power increased for every additional point in the president’s approval rating. They believe if they broke with him, he’d be more unpopular, and they wouldn’t be rewarded for that break. They would be punished for it.

Murphy, left, at a White House meeting to discuss school and community safety in 2018.
Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg, via Getty Images.

Let me ask a question about hypocrisy in politics. In 2015, when Tom Cotton and other Republican senators published an open letter to Iran about nuclear talks, you said he was undermining President Obama’s authority. Earlier this year, you were criticized in similar terms when you met with the Iranian foreign minister. As far as I can tell, both instances involved politicians expressing their foreign-policy views with another country without the backing of the president. Why was it OK for you to do that and not for Republicans? There is a very important distinction between those two episodes. Senator Cotton was directly undermining a key foreign-policy priority of the president. The president was attempting to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran, and this letter was specifically designed to stop Iran from entering into that agreement. I met with the Iranian foreign minister, but I didn’t do so with the intent of undermining a foreign-policy priority of the president.

But you weren’t meeting with him to cheerlead for President Trump’s policies toward Iran. No, but I talked about priorities that were consistent with those of the State Department and avoided some topics that I knew I would be crosswise with the administration on. I was very clear when Tom Cotton did what he did that I didn’t think he broke any laws. I thought he was wrong on the policy. But I didn’t question his legal right to do it. A lot of people questioned that I had violated the Logan Act by speaking to the Iranians. But I never questioned Senator Cotton’s legal right as a member of Congress to enter into a conversation with the Iranians. So I guess that’s not hypocritical at all: I get to say that Tom Cotton was an idiot for trying to undermine a nuclear agreement that was going to make the United States safer, and he gets to criticize me for talking to the Iranians about things that I believe in that he may not.

But if you were talking about priorities that were consistent with the State Department’s, why would you need to be the one to be talking about them with Iran’s foreign minister? I’ve been very vocal about my belief that Congress should be able to talk to foreign leaders even when they disagree with the position of the administration. I’m a member of a coequal branch of government that has foreign-policy-setting powers. I thought that meeting with Zarif was particularly sensitive, so I was careful about what I talked about. I guess your question is why. Well, it’s because the administration wasn’t doing it. For instance, one of the things I talked to them about was the release of political prisoners. We need those political prisoners home, and it’s an abdication of responsibility for the State Department to not be talking to the Iranians about that. So that was an issue where I agreed with the administration — we should get these political prisoners home — but because they weren’t having the conversation, I thought it was important that I have it.

This is also related to potential hypocrisy: Let’s say the Democrats gain a majority in the Senate. Have you and your colleagues had discussions about whether Republicans would try to confirm a new Supreme Court justice if Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not able to continue before the next Senate is sworn in? No. Let me say, I have full confidence that Ruth Bader Ginsburg will recover. The reality is if there’s a Supreme Court vacancy a day before the swearing in of the next Senate, Mitch McConnell will try to change the rules to push somebody through. Nothing matters more to him than the Supreme Court. He will not let history or precedent or the rules of the Senate stop him from trying to fill a vacancy if he has any ability to do so.

Gun control is your big issue. Are there ways to talk about it that don’t involve sinking into left-right politicization? One of the lasting successes of the gun lobby is that they’ve been able to attach the object of the firearm to a broader set of values. People see the image of the gun and maybe a Hollywood movie with some carnage, but the newspapers don’t print pictures of what the kids look like after they’ve had their body torn apart by an assault weapon. Our case is difficult because the gun is good-looking, and over the course of a hundred years it’s been attached to romantic notions of liberty and individualism. If people saw the image of what kids’ bodies look like after an AR-15 is done with them, the romanticism of the AR-15 would disappear.

You mentioned AR-15s. I bet if you asked most people whether you should be able to sell an assault rifle to a stranger in a parking lot, they’d say you probably shouldn’t. But I also bet that because of the intense partisan feelings about guns, some of those same people would say — in an owning-the-libs kind of way — that if stopping those sales is what nanny-state Democrats want, then screw it. How do you approach an issue like gun control when political symbolism is as much of an impediment to change as the actual issue itself? There’s this very pungent mythology about the secret agenda of people like myself: Universal background checks are a mechanism to get our foot in the door, and when we get all the way into the house, our intention is to take every one of your firearms. When I talk to a lot of gun-rights enthusiasts across the country, they are 100 percent confident that that is my agenda. That’s why in my book I propose that we concede that there is a private right to firearm ownership embedded in the Constitution. That is not a view shared by most progressives. Most progressives would say that the Second Amendment is about the maintenance of militias. But I think it’s both historically accurate and politically smart to make clear that gun-control enthusiasts are bound by a Constitution that protects the right of individuals to own firearms for protection or to shoot for sport. It’s important for us to explain the limits of our proposals. We also have to help the conservative movements find a means for their candidates to express their right-wing bona fides without the N.R.A.’s stamp of approval. If you’re trying to win a Republican primary, the easiest thing to do to show that you’re the most conservative candidate is to get the N.R.A. endorsement. We’ve got to find a mechanism for Republicans to show how conservative they are without having to be out of step with 90 percent of their constituents on guns.

I don’t quite follow your logic. If the N.R.A. is out of step with 90 percent of its constituents, then wouldn’t its endorsement be less meaningful? Increasingly in a general-election context, their endorsement is a liability. But in a Republican primary, when vague notions of freedom and liberty are controlling, the N.R.A.’s ability to tap into those values and that rhetoric can be dispositive. Outside of that context, you are much better off from an electoral perspective being for strong gun laws. The Georgia Sixth House District is the perfect example. In the special election, when Jon Ossoff ran, he stayed far away from guns, and he lost. Then in the general election, we ran an anti-gun-violence advocate, and she won a House district that hadn’t been won by a Democrat in decades. The conventional wisdom on this issue has been so wrong for so long. Republicans are going to figure out pretty quickly that they can’t win in the suburbs if they don’t support things like background checks.

Murphy speaking about gun control in 2013 at the Capitol.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Associated Press.

Let’s say more progressives did what you suggested earlier and moved away from arguing for repealing the Second Amendment. What should they be saying after that to try to make a persuasive gun-control case to gun-rights supporters? Let me flip that on you. Why do I have to convince more people? Ninety percent of Americans think that everybody should go through a background check; 65 to 70 percent of Americans don’t think that assault weapons should be sold. I don’t know that our problem is that we’re not convincing enough people, and I don’t know that I need to spend a whole lot more time perfecting my arguments to get from 90 percent to 95 percent.

Then why did you write your book? What we’re missing is not a persuasive argument. What we’re missing is activated voices. In politics, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. We need to make our wheel louder. So I do suggest ways in the book to try to build consensus and to make folks on the other side less scared of us, but much of what I’m trying to do is activate people who are already nominally on our side.

I understand what you’re saying about there not being much point in getting 95 percent of people to agree with you instead of 90, but am I just wrong in thinking that the gun-rights people are still dictating the terms of the argument? The greatest success of the gun lobby is to convince people that this is a third-rail issue that can’t be touched by politicians. This mythology starts in 1995 when Bill Clinton and others ascribed the Democratic losses in 1994 to a vote on the assault-weapons ban, which is crazy. The assault-weapons ban in 1994 was wildly popular. President Reagan was one of the primary supporters of it. But it became a political truth that gun votes were the reason the Democrats lost control of the Congress in 1994. I think it has always been much less toxic to be for strong regulation of guns than people want to believe. So I reject this idea that we have to recraft our arguments to win over new people. Our problem is more that we haven’t taken the time to build a political organization, and we don’t have people as loud on our side as they have on the other side.

As far as personal activation, it took the moral atrocity of Sandy Hook for you to take on gun control as a political mission. Do you worry that people have to be personally affected by gun violence in order to make it a central part of their politics? Yes. You care about a hundred issues, but the ones that your vote is based upon are the ones that connect to your life. Frankly, democracy is supposed to elevate the issues that are personally important to people. I think the sea change in the gun-violence debate likely occurred not after one particular shooting but when most schools required kids to go through active-shooter drills. I know how to talk about guns better than 99.9 percent of Americans, and yet I had a hard time deciding how much I was going to tell my kindergartner about why he had been stuffed into the bathroom that morning with 26 other kids and told to stay quiet for as long as they could. Every parent is having some version of that experience, which is not coincidental to this issue all of a sudden mattering to folks whether or not they know somebody who’s been murdered.

I have to say, it was hard to think of something I found more morally perverse than what I heard from my 5-year-old about her school’s lockdown drill. It was so obviously evidence of something having gone profoundly wrong in this country. I was surprised at how unequipped I was for that conversation. But it plugged me in to this place that everybody else was. I sometimes marvel at how quickly this movement has grown, and to the extent that there was a turning point, it’s Parkland. When these 16- and 17-year-olds were building a movement, it created a collective guilt complex among adults. You couldn’t look at yourself and say, “Well, I can’t do anything,” if you’re watching 16- and 17-year-olds doing something about it.

Do you own a gun? I don’t. I’ve never owned any guns, and I haven’t ever shot a weapon. That’s not out of principle. That act of pulling the trigger is so connected to what happens on the other side that I have never wanted to feel that sensation. I think it would be instructive to fire a semiautomatic rifle so that I can maybe talk more intelligently about what that gun does. But again, it would connect me to a set of emotions that I don’t know that I need to access.

One thing that’s striking in your book is how candid you are about not having a specific issue or political motivation that was driving your political career before Sandy Hook. But you also don’t quite explain why you got into politics in the first place without having a specific issue or political motivation. I grew up with parents — and in particular a mother — who beat into me that I needed to live my life in a way that gave back. I grew up with this sort of paranoia that I had to choose a vocation that was going to make people’s lives better. I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t like the sight of blood, so I probably wasn’t going to be a doctor, and I probably wasn’t a good enough entrepreneur to start a business and give money away. But I liked people, I was good at talking, and I could win an argument with my friends. So public service and politics seemed to be a place where you could make a difference. You’re right that I didn’t have one issue driving me, but I thought that politics was noble.

Does it still feel noble after 13 years in Washington? It does. I remember being at a community pool in Connecticut with my son, and a guy about my age approached me really sheepishly. This is 2010, 2011. He was like, “I feel bad coming up here and saying this to you, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve got a son too, that I’m here with today, who’s got a rare blood disorder. And my entire life, since he was born, I was heartbroken over the fact that his life choices were going to be dictated by his illness.” And he said, “I can’t explain to you how liberating it is to now know that my kid’s life isn’t going to be dictated by an illness that wasn’t his fault.” He was saying thank you for passing the Affordable Care Act. I have enough of those moments where I can still believe that through this job, you can change people’s lives for the better.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.


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