Monday’s mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, that killed at least seven people was just the latest in America’s shameful tradition of gun violence.
Less than a month into the new year, there have been at least 39 mass shootings in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and 2023 is expected to be the largest for this time of year in any year on record.
The bipartisan gun safety bill signed into law last summer made modest changes to the country’s gun legislation but did not address assault rifles, the weapon of choice for many mass shooters.
However, it’s not entirely hopeless. Senator Chris Murphy, who has made gun safety legislation his life’s work following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, predicted a sea change on the horizon.
We spoke with the Connecticut Democrat on Tuesday about American gun culture, reform and what he hopes to bring about this year. Our conversation, conducted over the phone, has been lightly edited for flow and brevity, and is presented below.
LEBLANC: I want to start by talking about your response to the recent mass shootings — 39 so far this year. What does this mean?
Murphy: It illustrates a great disease in America. This is the only country in the world where people who break with reality exercise their demons through massacres.
We are not the only place in the world with mental illness. We’re not the only place in the world where people are paranoid. But it’s only in America that we acquire weapons of mass destruction so casually, only in America that we become so obsessed with violence that we end up with all the mass shootings.
So we’re in the game now. We’re passing more gun safety laws than ever before, but at the same time, more guns — especially more illegal and very dangerous guns — are pouring into our communities at an unprecedented rate.
Right now, the laws we pass are saving lives. But the end result is that faster sales and transfers still lead to higher rates of violence.
LEBLANC: You recently expressed optimism about the fight for common-sense gun laws in the United States. What is driving this optimism?
Murphy: There is no doubt that the laws being passed are saving lives. The bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed last summer, would save thousands of lives if fully implemented.
I know it has saved lives. I’ve been briefed by the FBI and they’ve shown me extremely dangerous people who could have access to weapons in times of crisis in their lives were it not for the bill we passed last summer.
Bills recently passed by state legislatures in places like New Jersey and Illinois would also save lives. But in the past 10 years, there have been too many weapons in circulation, and too many states that have weakened their laws instead of strengthening them, and we cannot have the kind of impact we want.
LEBLANC: How do you deal with people who grew up with guns and are responsible for the guns they own? How do you convince this group that something like an assault weapons ban is a good idea?
Murphy: People are only willing to support laws that work, and we need to make sure everyone understands how much we have reduced mass shootings in the 10 years since we banned assault weapons.
It is true that in states with stricter gun laws, including assault weapons bans, there are far fewer gun deaths. It’s also true that when the country decided to tighten laws around assault weapons, we saw fewer mass shootings.
The NRA and the gun lobby have done a good job of convincing many gun owners that the laws don’t work and that no matter what the regulations say, people will evade them. This is not true. The laws do work, especially the assault weapons ban.
In Connecticut we don’t sell assault weapons, but frankly, people in my state don’t have a lot of complaints because they can still buy powerful weapons to protect their homes. They can still buy weapons to hunt or shoot; collectors in Connecticut still have access to a wide variety of firearms. I think we have to convince people that if we ban assault weapons, the sky won’t fall.
Finally, we must also convince gun owners that there are no secret agendas. The NRA and the gun lobby have done a great job of convincing people that my agenda and the agenda of the movement is to confiscate guns. That was a complete fabrication.
I think every gun should go through a background check. I think some guns are too dangerous to be sold in the commercial market. I don’t think we should broadly restrict people’s access to guns. I don’t think the constitution allows that, and the debate on my side should be clear about what we want to do and what we don’t intend to do.
LeBlanc: I want to ask you how you think the gun debate in America has become so unencumbered by what the data tells us. It sounds like you’re saying the NRA and the gun lobby played a big part in this?
Murphy: I think it’s more complicated than that. America has had a very romantic relationship with guns since the days of Samuel Colt. For more than 150 years, weapons have been woven into American identity and American mythology.
Many Americans today do believe that American ideals such as their liberty and liberty have something to do with their unrestricted access to guns. They believe that if their gun rights are restricted, something will be taken away from them as patriotic Americans. So I think we have to accept that this is a powerful myth, and it’s not new.
You know, it wasn’t Charlton Heston in the 1980s; Samuel Colt, Winchester and Remington — they’ve been doing it since the 1860s. It’s a powerful force, and I think we have to accept that guns will always be a big part of American culture.
Guns will be an important element of growing up in many American homes. But you can still make guns a big part of American culture without requiring people to use AR-15s, while making sure only law-abiding citizens own guns.
LeBlanc: There’s been a lot of discussion among medical professionals about reframing the gun debate in America as a public health crisis rather than a political issue. Do you think a public health approach can help make progress?
Murphy: I think we have to take a step back and understand the true cost of the problem of gun violence. We often refer to this problem in terms of the number of people who die each day. The number — more than 110 — is remarkable.
But last fall, I visited a low-income school near Hartford, a neighborhood with high rates of violence. I sat down with a group of eighth graders. They just wanted to talk to me about how dangerous their walk to school was and what their day was like. Just think about it and worry about it.
We are losing an entire generation of children in violent communities because their brains are broken by the daily trauma of gun violence and the worry that they will be next. Not to mention that every child in this country, no matter how violent their neighbors are right now, is traumatized by having to undergo aggressive shooting training in school.
So I think we have to understand how fragile children’s brains are, and how damaging exposure to violence is to these children. It’s no coincidence that the country’s underperforming schools are often located in the most violent neighborhoods.
LEBLANC: In your opinion, what will make 2023 a successful year in the fight against gun violence? New legislation? cultural shift?
Murphy: Obviously, I want to build on our success at the federal level. I know this House Republican majority is going to be a dumpster fire. They are unlikely to pass any gun legislation, let alone.
But I will try to find common ground. I focus on issues like safe gun storage and think a bipartisan deal is certainly possible.
I also want to implement the 2022 law – five major changes to America’s gun laws, and a lot of money for safer communities and anti-gun violence programs. So I want to make sure that the government is vigorously enforcing that law.
I’d love to see more state law changes. Connecticut may enact some new legislation. Other states, such as Michigan, will do the same. So I want to see progress in the state.
In the end, I just want to keep growing the sport. I think the gun safety movement is stronger than the gun lobby right now, but it’s a close call. Therefore, we will continue to develop more volunteers, raise more funds and become more active in activities.
This has been a trend that has been going on for the past decade, and I expect it to continue in 2023.