Sen. Christopher S. Murphy stepped off the Senate floor early Thursday morning after talking about gun violence for almost 15 hours. But he’s not finished.
The Connecticut Democrat said he wants to build an “outside political movement” to work for legislation that will keep weapons from falling into the wrong hands. And he pledged to use any increased fundraising and organizing clout he may have gained from this week’s filibuster to help elect candidates who think like him.
“There has to be a storyline coming out of 2016 that shows that senators that voted against consensus measures like mandatory background checks pay a political price,” Murphy said.
The filibuster earned Democrats a chance to debate gun restrictions on the floor next week. The Senate has lined up four votes: two on measures restricting access for people on terror watch lists, and two for amendments enhancing background checks. The real change, Murphy conceded, will come through the electoral process.
He said in an interview that to the extent that “my lists and my reach got a little bit bigger” from his extended protest that began Wednesday morning, he would be working to raise money and support Democratic Senate candidates this year.
He is already working with outside groups that promote background-check legislation to craft what he described as a “coordinated strategy within the law for the 2016 elections.”
Murphy doesn’t always look the part of a senator. At 42, he’s among the youngest. Prior to his Senate election in 2012, he served three terms in the House. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who represents Murphy’s old House district, noted that the junior senator was a brand new father at the time of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, located in their district, that killed 20 children and six adults.
“It is our lifelong mission to make sure that other people don’t have to go through what these families have gone through,” Esty said, a feeling she shares with Murphy.
Murphy can look even younger than he is: Backpack slung over a shoulder, he walks from his house in the leafy Tenleytown neighborhood most weekdays to drop one son off at preschool, and the other at a Washington, D.C., public school (Thursday was the final day of first grade) before taking the Metro to work.
His rather unusual beverage of choice is Diet Mountain Dew, often out of a paper cup, and he said he celebrated with one after the filibuster came to a close.
Murphy has become a leader among Democrats on firearms issues, even if it was not by design.
The mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 came just weeks after Murphy was elected to the Senate, and so even before being sworn in, he had a gut-wrenching domestic policy priority.
In April 2013, supporters fell short of the votes needed to advance either a compromise expansion of federal background checks or a revival of a ban on assault weapons.
The background check measure had bipartisan backing led by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, but even that could only garner the support of 54 senators, short of the 60 needed to overcome procedural hurdles.
The defeat didn’t stop Murphy who had given 45 floor speeches on gun violence before the filibuster, which ended just after 2 a.m. on Thursday.
That accomplishment has helped make him the latest star in the storied history of the small Connecticut delegation, Democratic Rep. John B. Larson said.
“There were times when I thought I was watching ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ because Chris, for all of his acumen and intellect and unbelievable capabilities, still comes across with almost a sincere belief … a naive belief in the process,” Larson said of the filibuster. “He’s far from naive. He’s extraordinarily sophisticated.”
Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat who represents the southwestern part of the state, said Murphy really did not have a choice but to become involved in the gun control issue.
“A week doesn’t go by when one of us doesn’t bump into a Newtown family. And it is sheer torture to be asked the inevitable question of, ‘What is the chance that something gets done to prevent what happened to my son?’,” Himes said in an interview.
“There aren’t harder questions to answer. And for years now we’ve said, nothing’s happening. So when the largest mass shooting in our history happens, I think it was natural for us to say we’re not doing business as usual anymore,” he said.
Connecticut’s senior Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was the state’s attorney general for two decades before his election to the Senate, said the fatal shooting at Sandy Hook galvanized not only the congressional delegation, but the entire state.
“It has been an issue for me for more than 20 years, so I anticipated I would be devoting a lot of energy and time to it, but probably not as much as we have. Sandy Hook obviously was completely unanticipated, but it transformed us,” Blumenthal said.
That transformation extends beyond Connecticut. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who was governor of Virginia during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, said the senators from states particularly affected by gun violence discus the issues regularly.
“We have not stopped talking about this since the vote failed on the floor in April 2013. We’ve been talking about what we can do, and Chris has really been in the lead on that,” he said.
“Chris, in a Democratic lunch Tuesday, he and Cory [Booker] just made the case,” Kaine said, also referring to New Jersey’s junior Democratic senator.
Kaine said that in addition to physically standing with Murphy as his colleague held the floor, Booker also played the role of traffic cop, helping to coordinate the flow of Democratic senators assisting Murphy with his filibuster.
“The moment of silence where we then don’t do anything has got to be over,” Kaine said. “And it was very organic.”
Murphy said he came to the Senate Monday evening after the mass shooting in Orlando knowing that the chamber needed to respond with something more than indifference.
“I’ve had countless conversations with Democrats, with Republicans, with leadership staff” over the years since Sandy Hook, said Murphy. “There have admittedly been long dead periods.”
“What was so offensive to me was that people had just stopped trying,” he said, a point that was relayed to the Democratic caucus.
Murphy’s filibuster certainly got attention. Nearly 40 Democratic senators joined him on the floor at some point during the filibuster. Beyond the Capitol, the marathon session brought a deluge of tweets, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said supporters flooded the switchboard with some 120,000 phone calls to Senate offices.
That’s the activist movement the Connecticut senator is looking to build upon.