Meet the Democratic senator trying to negotiate gun control with Trump

Sen. Chris Murphy’s “soul-crushing” day came less than a month after he won his 2012 election to represent Connecticut in the Senate. It would change the trajectory of his career. 

A lone shooter on Dec. 14, 2012, opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 people — including 20 children all aged 6 or 7. 

It was a shooting that shocked the nation, but one that did not lead to dramatic new gun laws. 

{mosads}In the years since, the country has seen even deadlier mass shootings, at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Fla., and at a country music concert in Las Vegas. It has also seen more school shootings, including at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

More than six years after Sandy Hook, Murphy is part of a small group of lawmakers hoping to do what seems like the impossible: pass a bill to expand background checks. 

Murphy, 46, has been in contact with the White House and President Trump since two more shootings — in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — that left 31 people dead.

He put the chances of legislation becoming law at less than 50-50 but argues there is an opening. 

The White House has “made it clear to me that they are very open to legislation that would expand background checks. That’s what the president told me personally, that’s what the White House reiterated to me,” Murphy told The Hill in an interview. 

Murphy doesn’t have a close relationship with Trump, whom he routinely criticizes on issues like health care and foreign policy. 

Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the other two senators who make up the core group of senators in talks with the White House, probably have more of a link to Trump, who is known for being personality-driven. 

“I went to the White House for the meeting on guns after Parkland,” Murphy said. “You know I’ve run into him at a couple of other events, but, no, I don’t have a relationship with him.” 

But, he added, “the feeling is that if we can find something the four of us agree on then it probably bodes well for getting 60 votes in the Senate.” 

Trump and Murphy aren’t close, but they aren’t bitter public foes either. 

Trump has lashed out for years at Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s senior senator, including nicknaming him “Da Nang Dick.” Murphy, so far, has sidestepped such ridicule.

Trump and Murphy connected after the senator initially reached out to the White House to let them know he was open to talking about potential legislation in the wake of this month’s shootings in Dayton and El Paso. Trump told reporters they had a “very good conversation.” 

In the nearly four weeks since, Trump has sent public mixed signals about what, if anything, he is willing to support. 

Murphy believes the White House is still open to talking about expanding background checks, though details about what a package would look like remain scarce. 

“I think it’s significant that after a few days of press stories suggesting that the White House was not interested in background checks they deliberately reached out to me and to others to correct the record. That suggests real interest,” Murphy said.

Murphy added that Trump, in their conversation, was specifically interested in expanding the number of sales to which background checks apply.

The negotiations are the latest turn in Murphy’s Senate career, which has been shaped by Newtown.

His first Senate floor speech was about gun violence — a situation, he admits, he would not have predicted.

“When I was elected to the United States Senate last November, I never imagined that my maiden speech would be about guns or about gun violence. Just like I could never imagine that I’d be standing here in the wake of 20 little kids having died in Sandy Hook or six adults who protected them. But sometimes issues find you,” Murphy said during the speech in April 2013.

Less than a week later the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected a proposal crafted by Manchin and Toomey to expand background checks to all commercial gun sales. Only two Republicans still in the Senate voted for the bill: Toomey and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). 

Murphy quickly became one of his party’s best-known champions for gun control in Congress, including launching a political fund to support candidates that back “common sense” legislation. 

In 2016, he led a 15-hour filibuster on the Senate floor as part of an effort to force Republicans to bring gun-related legislation up for a vote. Murphy also delivered a speech from the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in which he recounted the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, where he waited with parents in a firehouse near the elementary school. 

Obstacles facing gun control supporters in today’s negotiations are numerous. The House has already passed a universal background check bill, which has earned a veto threat from the White House. 

The Senate, meanwhile, is out of town until Sept. 9, leaving senators to connect from across the country or let staffers try to hash out a path forward with the White House legislative affairs team. 

“There is a risk that by the time that we get back into session after Labor Day there will be two or three other crises that have been dominating the narrative,” Murphy told reporters in Connecticut on Friday. “I think there’s certainly a danger that we will move on to another crisis that’s dominating the headlines, but I’m hopeful that we’ll at least be working behind closed doors.” 

The long recess is just one hurdle.

Several GOP senators have expressed skepticism, or outright opposition, to new legislation, underscoring the uphill path any deal will face to get to Trump’s desk. 

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, told reporters in the wake of the shootings that he didn’t “expect that things have changed much” within the Republican caucus when it comes to background checks. Asked on Tuesday about a bill to expand background checks, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) instead pointed to “red flag” legislation that would allow law enforcement to go to court to take away weapons from people considered to be threats. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said background check legislation would “more likely create a speed bump for law abiding citizens.” 

Murphy said Trump’s energetic backing is probably the only way of moving a background check bill through the Senate. 

“The sweet spot is whatever President Trump is willing to support. If President Trump endorses a background checks bill we will be able to get to 60 votes in the Senate,” Murphy said. 

Murphy’s own party sees Trump as unlikely to bless any agreement that could provoke a backlash from the gun lobby or his conservative base. Though support for background checks polls at roughly 90 percent, the National Rifle Association (NRA) retains a tight grip of the Senate Republican Conference, where several members are running for reelection in deeply red states. 

“I made it clear to the president that there’s nothing worth doing that the NRA supports so we can’t be talking about small incremental changes to the background system,” Murphy told The Hill. 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a close friend of Murphy’s, predicted last week that it would take an election for Congress to pass gun safety legislation. 

“They will form working groups, they will issue statements. But they will do absolutely nothing. Nothing,” Schatz tweeted, referring to Republicans.

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action who first met Murphy in 2013, called him a “superstar” on pushing for gun reform legislation in the Senate and said she trusts him to negotiate with the administration. 

“He has been a champion on this issue ever since the Sandy Hook tragedy and understands the scope of our crisis and the fact that a background checks law is really the foundation of all gun safety laws,” she said. 

But, she added, Trump is a “wild card” whose “position on gun safety goes in circles. … If he were serious all he would have to do is pick up the phone and call” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

Murphy acknowledged that some Democrats could not support parts of Manchin-Toomey or might not want to support an agreement that would hand Trump a win, but he is urging his colleagues to trust him. 

“I am a hard-liner on this issue … and I hope my friends in the Senate recognize that I wouldn’t go into negotiations with the president if I didn’t think there was a realistic chance to get out of this something that would save lives,” he said. 

He added, “We’ll know by the time Congress reconvenes whether there’s common ground to be found here.” 

Tags Brian Schatz Chris Murphy Donald Trump Gun control Joe Manchin John Barrasso Marco Rubio Mass shootings Mitch McConnell Pat Toomey Ron Johnson Susan Collins
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