The NRA’s First Major Defeat In Decades (with Sen. Chris Murphy)
The first major bipartisan gun bill in three decades is now law. Much of this is due to the work of Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), who helped bring senators from both sides of the aisle together. Senator Murphy joins Andy to talk about what it took to get Republicans on board, what each senator brought to the table and why he hopes this bill will benefit his Republican colleagues. Andy asks about what it’s like working with victim families over and over again, plus a look at how this bill can save lives and what’s next.
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Andy Slavitt, Chris Murphy
Andy Slavitt 00:18
Welcome to IN THE BUBBLE. This is Andy Slavitt, Monday, July 18th. And we have Chris Murphy on the show today. Chris is a senator from the state of Connecticut, who about 10 years ago after the Sandy Hook shooting really became the single legislator politician who pledged himself to gun reform. I’ve seen connected to Chris a number of times, at different forums, those of you who know my wife Lana know that she is been very active. And for a long time, one of the leaders of Moms Demand Action, which is a gun safety issues with working on issues of background checks, and red flag laws and the kinds of things to keep guns stored more safely, that people in this community work for. And Chris has always been the sort of the guiding light. He’s the person who I think if you’re in the tragic situation, of being involved in a school shooting, you get a lot of publicity, and a lot of attention. And the person you end up connecting with is Chris Murphy. And for 10 years, I think people would have said, Chris is failing, we’ve all anybody who’s believed that there should be just common sense gun reform is just basic limitations to the Second Amendment have been stopped at every moment, why? I think people would say, oh, it’s the NRA. And that may be the answer. But I think it’s deeper than that. You know, I think the topic of guns is complex. There is absolutely no simple consensus. There’s a lot of gun owners, there’s a lot of people who are concerned about guns. But it turns out on a bunch of issues, there has been a consensus that Washington just hasn’t gotten to. And it’s been frustrating, right? And you think about these issues that have popularity with the American public that like red flag laws, like background checks, where everybody gun owner or not or like, except for people, maybe the extremes feels like good ideas, and they still can’t get done. Well, when the shooting in the valley happened, Chris once again, said it’s time to get something done. And I will tell you that like a lot of people, I’ve probably said to myself, yeah, right. But Chris isn’t a quitter. And last month, the President signed into law, the first piece of legislation that has been dramatically opposed by the NRA. Some would say, well, these are small steps. We’re gonna get into that with Chris today. Are they small steps? Are they big steps. But I’m also interested in whatever size steps they are, are they? What do they say about the ability to get things like this done, and to do more in the future? And what happens to the people who have been told for years, Republicans, that they will not be re-elected? There’ll be primaried, if they vote for anything that attached to gun safety. And we’re going to talk about that. We’re also going to talk about what it was like to work with the families to work behind the scenes with Republicans to see this deal come together. It’s a really good, intimate personal conversation. I really appreciate Chris doing it. And I think you will enjoy it. It’s a pleasure for the team to bring it to you. Let’s go talk to Chris Murphy.
Well, first of all, congratulations. We have a new law in this country. It’s called the bipartisan, Safer Communities Act. Look, you’ve been working on this for a decade nonstop. In fact, my wife fished out this picture from 2019 of us in Las Vegas at the at a candidates forum. And you have always showed up for these things we just described before you came on what’s in the law and what isn’t. And look, Tom Dashiell once said to me, in Washington, you got to deal with what your ideal is and what your possible is at the same time. And so I would like to start with the possible we could talk about the ideal at some point. But a lot of us probably including you didn’t think that this had a great chance of getting done even despite all the violence and all the things that have gone public people’s attention to, when did you go from pessimism to optimism take us a little bit into the room of when you started to feel things flipping.
Chris Murphy 04:51
So, I mean, I remained pessimistic for most of the first two to three weeks of the negotiations only because I had been through so many of these talks before and they had always fallen through, it was always easier for both sides, but especially Republicans to retreat to their political corner. In retrospect, this was different from the outset. The first meeting was serious, Senator Sinema, Senator Cornyn and Senator Tillis and I sat down and in that very first meeting, put concrete ideas on the table, a bigger set of ideas that had ever been discussed in bipartisan talks before. I think when I knew that this was a real possibility of success was after we got back from the Memorial Day recess. Normally, as you know, when Congress goes on recess, talks like this fade away, especially on a really controversial topic, like gun violence, where most people are trying to find a reason to get to know not yes, we came back after that Memorial Day recess, and there was a renewed seriousness to the talks. And I think that’s because that week, when members of Congress went home, they were met with a level of anxiety and fear and anger from their constituents that they had never seen before. Uvalde was just a breaking point for a lot of parents, especially another Sandy Hook. And I think there was a commitment from everybody in that room that this time had to be different, this time, we actually had to deliver it for Republicans a real sense that there was an immense political downside to them, if they didn’t get on the right side of this issue.
Andy Slavitt 06:30
It’s interesting, because, you know, it’s become a bust an article of faith in Republican political circles, that anything, gun safety leads to the slippery slope of people coming for your guns. And as we know, culturally, there’s a lot of attachment people have in a lot of communities around the country, to gun ownership. How did you, in that first conversation, you said the list was actually bigger than you’d expected it to be a bit in the long time. How did you feel around for what the Republican red lines were Cornyn and Tillis were coming from? Because, you know, there had been almost no acknowledgement of their willingness to do anything. How did you think about their starting position?
The first thing to say is that both Senator Tillis and Senator Cornyn weren’t emotionally moved by what happened in Uvalde. And they walk into that room with not just a political commitment, but with an emotional commitment to get something done. Second, I had worked with Senator Cornyn, a bunch on this issue. So I had a pretty good sense of what John could live with and what he couldn’t. Third, I made very clear that I wasn’t going to be litigating the big ticket issues like universal background checks, or an assault weapons ban. And then fourth, Senator cinema made a big difference here. She’s someone that has spent a lot of time with Republicans, she has negotiated big items with Republicans before like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, she was able to do a lot of work behind the scenes to get a sense of what could eventually get that 10 to 15 votes. But in that first meeting, you know, we talked about almost everything that ended up in the bill, we talked about going big on mental health as a way to bring in more Republican votes. We talked about doing something on these under 21 buyers, which you know, was specifically designed to get at Uvalde. John and I had always had a conversation going on background checks and getting more sellers to be registered as federal firearms dealers. Senator Sinema really wanted to put the boyfriend loophole on the table, which I thought at the outset might be a long shot, but she was committed to keeping that in the conversation. And, you know, it was that and then red flags was an obvious issue, we should already scored some bipartisan agreement that we thought that we could perfect. So it was that set of issues that got us started in the conversation. And frankly, none of those issues that we started talking about two days after Uvalde fell off. In fact, all we did was add additional issues to the conversation.
We’ll talk a little bit more about the negotiation in a second, but I want to just play a recording for you something I think is really interesting. You know, we do a show called Last Day, which is show that tries to bridge the divide between gun owning culture and the gun safety movement and just to increase understanding. And the host of this is a woman named Stephanie Wittels Wachs who is actually at the White House with you today. She went to Montana to talk to gun owners, and she met this guy there named Wayne Yates who’s who you’re gonna hear on this. Here’s what you should know about Wayne, when you listen to this. He’s an absolute believer in the Second Amendment, Second Amendment absolutist and yet he lost his step son to suicide by gun. Just interesting to hear this comment because I think it gives us a sense of where we’re starting from and how far apart people are.
Wayne Yates 10:00
It’s just a machine. Very simple machine. There’s a barrel, there’s an action, the receiver. And you got to have a way to ignite it with a trigger. That’s it. That’s a gun.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs
So yeah, it’s a simple machine. But it’s a simple, very deadly machine. When you hear about people using these guns to harm others, and you know, what do you as a gun guy, like, what do you think about that?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs
Simple as that, guns are machines, but people are stupid, and some stupid people use guns to kill other people. How do you protect people in a world that has all sorts of dangerous things?
You can’t. You can’t. You can’t do that. Everything’s a deadly weapon. This mike stand, that cup, everything is. I mean, you can’t do that. There’s just no way. It’s all about the individuals choices.
So I play that because I think most of our audience probably comes from a world closer to where you and I live, which is that even respecting human rights, there ought to be reasonable limits. But you know, Senator Cornyn, and others have constituents that have this sort of more absolutist view. So do you feel like that there’s been a potential change in sort of absolutism about the Second Amendment, that there are common sense, regulations that people will accept, beginning with this piece of legislation?
I actually think that the balance of opinion on this issue has changed much in the last 10 years, generally, you know, 80%-90% of Americans think that you should regulate the sale of handguns think that everybody should go through a background check. There are bigger numbers of Americans today that think they are 15 should be banned than before. But it’s always been a plurality of Americans, that’s always been a pretty popular measure. The difference over time has been, the small number of Americans do believe there should be no regulation on gun ownership of incredibly loud, and incredibly influential in Republican circles. And the majority of Americans who believe in sensible gun regulation, they’ve been pretty quiet. Just you know, it hasn’t been there on their top 10 list.
Andy Slavitt 12:34
Not their number one issue, right?
Yeah, not they’re number one. And number two, number three, that’s what’s changed is that all of a sudden, there is a growing number of parents and kids and young people and voters in cities who say this is my number one issue, or it’s at least my number one or two or three, I’m gonna really pay attention to how you vote on the issue of guns, and all of a sudden, that group is bigger and louder than the folks who have been traditionally loud on the other side, that’s what’s really changed here. Not that opinion has changed. But the size and the amplicon amplification of the voice has changed.
Yeah, so the sort of outsized voice and role of say, the NRA as a lobby, but also I think it oversimplified to say that it’s just the NRA. And that’s why I wanted to play that clip. Because you know, there are obviously people who feel that way out there. What’s your sense of where the NRA is in? Is there been a deflation of their potential power? Did they play a role here? Was it constructive? Did they give tacit approval to Cornyn and Republicans just say enough enough with the NRA? And that sort of changes the equation, I’m trying to understand where if the environment is become more hospitable to dialogue?
Well, but your power is all imagined, right? In this business, right. There’s your real power, and then there’s your imagined power. The perception of the NRA is totally different today than it was 10 years ago, you would have never imagined even 5 years ago, 15 Senate Republicans being willing to support a bill that the NRA was diametrically opposed to the NRA didn’t support this bill. They came out against it. They fiercely lobby members of the Senate to vote against it. And while they convinced 35 members of the Senate to vote against it, they didn’t come close to convincing 50. And that’s because the NRA has done some things to itself to become weaker, but it’s also because the counterweight the anti-gun violence movement is stronger than ever before. And all of a sudden, there’s just a lot more political downside to members of Congress voting with the NRA. So I think that that tilt in power is permanent. There was one Republican senator who, after declaring she was going to vote for this bill was asked about it What made her choose to vote against the NRA? And she’s very casual in her response. She said something along the lines of? Well, you know, I’m usually good with the NRA. But the NRA is just wrong on this bill. That’s something that Republican Senator would not have said five years ago, just to sort of casually wipe away the NRA is opposition that used to be definitive. That used to be final. Now, it’s just one factor that Republicans consider when they’re voting on gun violence bills, what the NRA position is, and that’s a that’s a shift. That’s a paradigm shift in political power that we’ve been trying to achieve for 10 years when we finally got there.
Well, when we come back, we’re going to talk a little bit about your journey here, your effort here, the approach he took, which was a bit unusual.
Andy Slavitt 16:07
The day the shooting in Uvalde, Chris you went to the floor and gave it a passionate speech, I want to play some tape of that.
Why are we here, if not to try to make sure that fewer schools and fewer communities go through what Sandy Hook has gone through, what Uvalde is going through, our heart is breaking for these families. Every ounce of love and thoughts and prayers we can send we are sending. But I’m here on this floor, to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and begged my colleagues find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way, to pass laws that make this less likely. I understand my Republican colleagues will not agree to everything that I may support. But there is a common denominator that we can find. There is a place where we can achieve agreement that may not guarantee that American never ever again sees a mass shooting. That may not overnight cut in half the number of murders that happen in America, it will not solve the problem of American violence by itself. But by doing something, we at least stopped sending this quiet message of endorsement to these killers whose brains are breaking, who see the highest levels of government doing nothing. Shooting after shooting.
So, I will tell you how I reacted to your speech. First of all, my wife and I were incredibly moved by it. It felt like these were not prepared remarks. It felt like this was Chris talking not Senator Murphy. Chris a dad, Chris, someone who has been entrusted by a number of families over the years who were looking for a place to go and said, Senator Murphy, can you help us? So that’s what I heard. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong in that perception. Secondly, you did something I thought that was incredibly unusual and risky, which was you said, I’m not wetting myself to the traditional starting positions that have to happen here because I really just want to save some people’s lives. And Anything’s better than nothing. What was coursing through your blood in your veins at the time that you were going in? When you made that speech?
Chris Murphy 18:50
Yeah, I mean, there’s nothing planned or strategic or thoughtful about that speech. You know, it happens. Less than 60 minutes after I’ve learned about what happened in Uvalde. That was me speaking as a parent and as a human being. And that simple question I kept asking, I think was the question that everybody out there was asking, what are we doing as a country to allow this to happen? Right? Why are we here? Right? Why are we entrusted with these incredibly powerful jobs, if not to do something in this moments. And, you know, I do tend to go down to the floor and speak in the aftermath of these tragedies and speak in fairly sort of raw emotional tones, in part because I do want people to understand that outrage is still appropriate after these mass shootings, that we don’t have to become numb to it. But also because I have come to realize that authenticity is the coin of the realm of this business. I mean, if you’re not showing who you are, people can tell and I was feeling as a parent the same way that millions of other parents were feeling out there heartbroken at what had happened, but deeply scared for my country if they weren’t willing to step up and do something to protect my child. And I do think the fact that I sort of laid down no preconditions literally put my hands together and prayed for my colleagues to come to the table and talk, I hope that that, you know, opened up some safe space.
Andy Slavitt 20:24
And, you know, speaking of safe space, there’s the mythology that, that if you vote for something like this, you’re gonna get primaried. I think it felt to me like one of the most strategic objectives you could accomplish here, is just demonstrating the fallacy that if you piss off the extreme, but do something that, as you say, 80% to 90% of people feel like it’s common sense that it’s not going to wreck your future. In some way. It’s odd, because in many ways, you kind of hope that the other side gets rewarded for compromising with you, right?
100% I mean, I am deeply hopeful that the 15 Republicans that voted for this bill, broaden their base of political support afterwards. And in a world where most folks think that this is all a zero sum game, where anything that benefits Republicans must be bad for the country. That may sound countercultural, but I think it’s a mistake for us to sort of build our foundations around issues that we care about in a way in which we can only achieve victory through one party’s control, absolute total control of government. If we want to build a sustainable movement on the issue of gun violence, we need Republicans to vote with us. And so you know, well, I’m gonna go out and work for a lot of Democrats to win elections in 2022. I hope that people like John Cornyn and Tom Tillis feel like they are politically benefited from voting for this law. Because I think in the end, that will convince a lot more Republican colleagues to do the same in the future.
Andy Slavitt 22:04
When we come back, we’ll talk about how the families of Sandy Hook reacted to this new law, everything from joy to anger. I want to talk about a little bit about your personal journey over the last decade. Because many of us have observed it. It’s been 10 years since the Sandy Hook shooting. In that time, you’ve forged very deep relationships with not just the families of Sandy Hook, many of whom I know have become your friends, your personal friends, but many others people from across the country, when there’s a shooting in their community, you tend to be the office that they reach out to in many respects, it puts a lot of, put a lot of personal burden on you to feel like you can keep going and get something done with that with a lot a lot of evidence that it could ever happen. So you must have faced enormous pressure. I’m just curious if you can describe the emotional, high point, a new kind of most emotional moments. It’s you started to see a light here for this bill.
Yeah, this is obviously a difficult issue to be at your political center, because it is filled with so much grief. But at the same time, the people that I interact with, by and large are the folks that are dealing with this grief. Well, at the same time speaking truth to power they these are advocates, these are these are heroes, these are people who are just absolutely exceptional. And were able to do both things at the same time. And, you know, there’s not a day where I can feel down. Because at the end of every day, I still get to go home to my two kids. And so I’m just I’m a bystander, I’m an interloper to other people’s grief. And so I show up every day joyful, that, you know, my role in this movement is as a political leader, right, not as a survivor, not as a parent who has lost a child. So, in that way, I feel like I have no right to, you know, feel any kind of heavy weight, given the people that I’m surrounded by. But, you know, as this negotiation moved forward, and it became clear that we’re going to get something done. You know, there were some really emotional moments. I remember that night before we released the agreement, we put out a one page agreement that 10 Republicans 10 Democrats signed on to sort of give a signal that we have the support to pass it through the Senate. We released that on a Sunday, on Saturday night, I sat at my dining room table and I called through, you know, just tentative 15 leaders of the movement, parents, I have become very close to I texted and emailed a few more. You know, I don’t think I’ve had a more emotional light in my career. The people on the other end of those phone calls, they were, you know, I mean, sometimes sobbing and weeping other times angry that it has taken this long, but, you know, universally grateful and relieved that finally, we were stepping up and getting something done. And, you know, I feel like it’s these folks and Sandy Hook and Bridgeport New Haven, they’re my focus group there, who matters to me more than anybody else, what they think of my public service, while we still have a lot more to do, the fact that you know, we’re not empty handed any longer, it makes a lot of people feel a lot better about their advocacy.
Part of the burden, as you say is, you’ll never be done. Because you’re not going to be able to outline every shooting, you’re gonna be able to reduce them, but every time there’s more, you’ll feel them. But as you said, you picked up the phone and called someone I’m imagining from who’s a parent from Sandy Hook, and essentially told them, we finally have something, do you remember the words you used?
Chris Murphy 26:10
No, I don’t and, you know, obviously, those conversations are pretty private. But you know, there’s a sense from families in Sandy Hook, right, you know, why did it take 10 years? You know, why didn’t the nation wake up after it happened to us? Like, why couldn’t we have prevented all the rest of these? So there’s this combination of heartache and anger and relief from these families. And I understand it all, and I feel it all.
Yeah, I want to finish up with one final question. You know, we’ve talked and you’ve talked at great length about the red flag laws and what they could do about the boyfriend loophole about the real benefits. And there’s real studies that we will cite on the program notes that I would just curious, your if you get close up by talking about where you think we go from here, and where some of the ideal places we could move to? And there’s both a legislative policy question. There’s also I think, things to get done outside of policy. If you had to, say, kind of the single biggest policy goal that you’d like to achieve this out in front of us, you know, what would that look like? And I want to pair that with a question that actually comes from Lana, who met my wife, who says, you know, there’s a lot of things that you don’t need Congress for, for example, insurance companies getting serious about safety and protection. But people don’t secure their guns at home, other kinds of things, that if the culture changes, we’ll just make it far less likely that there’ll be unsafe guns in the home. So as you point to the future, and if indeed, you’re right, and hopefully you are that a lot more possible now than was possible weeks ago. What are some of the next mountains to climb?
Well, first and foremost, we have to implement this law. I mean, that’s no small thing, right? We’re setting up a whole new background check system for individuals under 21. We are going to go through a regulatory process to make sure that we properly take guns away from domestic abusers, we’ve got $15 billion in spending on mental health and community safety that we have to do right. So I do get it there is sort of always this notion to sort of look to the next thing. But this bill is only going to save 1000s of lives if we implement it well. And so I’m going to, frankly, spend a lot of my time just making sure that we get this piece of legislation, right that, you know, to me, the Holy Grail, Andy has always been background checks. And so I will continue to be focused on expanding the number of background checks that we do in this country, either incrementally or through future universal legislation. That’s where I think the biggest lies to be saved. And then lastly, you know, reframing this conversation, making sure that people understand that this is not an epidemic by and large mass shootings. This is a daily epidemic, that takes the lives of people in violent neighborhoods every single night, and ruins the lives of people who are never shot, who literally just fear for their lives. And their brain chemistry has changed in talking about these kids who have less levels of trauma that rival that of soldiers returning from war zones. So we need to make sure that the country focuses on this epidemic every single day and understands the public health imperative behind reducing the likelihood of violence in many of our most dangerous neighborhoods.
Well, you’ve been saying for a long time that you’re never going to quit. And you didn’t. And I want to thank you for that. And I know that you feel there’s a lot more work to be done and a lot of implementation. And people can always find things they’d love to have an ideal world. But man, I tell you that having a sense of optimism, that we can make progress here, it’s something it’s a new feeling. Yeah, that’s a new feeling.
It’s a new feeling. It’s a new feeling that I mean, even I didn’t know that we’d be able to access during you know, my political Lifetime. And so all I know is that wins in this business tend to beget wins and success tends to beget success. So that’s my hope. And thanks for having me on.
Andy Slavitt 30:10
Thank you for all you do, Senator.
thanks for your great advocacy on this. Your voice has been just essential.
Coming up on Wednesday, Adam Conover, we’re gonna be talking about government and really interesting takes that he has on government and he’s got a show called the G-word on Netflix. Friday, the topic is male contraception. Why is that in the news, it’s in the news, because we have millions of unplanned pregnancies every year. And this is a topic that I thought would be really interesting to discuss, and it was Mark Leibovich, the journalist on Monday, he’s out with a new book. That is a really a trip and it’s a great to talk about, I’m midway through it, I’m gonna finish before I interview him. It’s really fun read, and it’s about all the people that were in Trump’s orbit over the course of the last couple of years. Alright folks, thanks for tuning in. We’ll talk to you Wednesday.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.