Sen. Chris Murphy Proposes Sweeping Gun Background Checks To Strike 'Fear' Into GOP

The Connecticut Democrat acknowledges his bill's slim chances, but wants to rekindle the gun control debate.

WASHINGTON ― Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) plans to introduce sweeping legislation Wednesday to strengthen background checks on gun purchases, a measure intended to expand verifications for the sale or transfer of all firearms by private sellers.

The bill has slim chances in the Republican-controlled Congress, which Murphy readily acknowledged. But he argued that the legislation is important nevertheless for gun control advocates to have something to rally around ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“The political movement around anti-gun violence is getting stronger, month by month, year by year,” Murphy told HuffPost. “The tragic reality is every time one of these [mass] shootings happen, more people sign up to be activists, donate to candidates, and run this up the priority list of the issues they care at the ballot box.”

Murphy’s legislation would require anyone who buys a gun to pass a criminal background check, making it harder for convicted lawbreakers to get weapons. A study released in January found that nearly one-fourth of gun owners bought a firearm in the previous two years without a background check.

Support is widespread for such restrictions among gun owners and the general public.

But Republicans and the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, have opposed efforts to expand gun background checks, arguing such laws wouldn’t hinder criminals from obtaining guns. They also point to cases like this month’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, where the shooter cleared all requirements when he purchased firearms at two Nevada gun shops. 

The vast majority of Republicans don’t fear the electoral consequences of being wrong on this issue Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)

Still, Murphy said he hopes his bill will be something Democrats can use as a campaign issue. He’s also advocating for states to put referendums for universal background checks on their 2018 ballots.

“The vast majority of Republicans don’t fear the electoral consequences of being wrong on this issue,” Murphy said. 

Murphy has pressed the gun control issue since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his home state. He accused Republican colleagues of a “kind of sick complicity” for failing to pass meaningful gun reform, even after 20 children and six educators were shot to death at the school by a lone gunman who then killed himself.

“It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren’t public policy responses to this epidemic,” Murphy said at the time. 

Democrats have often floated stronger background checks as a way to combat gun violence. Following the Las Vegas shooting, however, the focus in Congress shifted from background checks to bump stocks, devices that make semi-automatic weapons function like machine guns. Bump stocks helped Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock kill 58 people in a short time frame. Many lawmakers, as well as the NRA, expressed initial support for tighter restrictions on bump stocks.

Nearly a month since the shooting, however, momentum for legislation doing so appears to have stalled. The Trump administration has also not said whether they plan to direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to ban the bump stocks, as some have pushed for. 

Murphy said he wants to rekindle the conversation around gun control because the NRA was using the bump stock issue to “take the eye off the ball” of background checks.

“The gun lobby wants you to only be able to talk about gun laws that would have addressed the last high-profile shooting,” he told HuffPost. “They do that because they want us to take the eye off the ball of background checks. They know this would be the most meaningful change, and they don’t want us to talk about this because they know that ultimately this will make the biggest difference.”