Sandy Hook Senator: It’s Not Congress’ Job To Pray

CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-CT speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, of Moms Demand Action and Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

In the days after a deranged young man fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) was grateful for any thoughts and prayers directed toward his community.

“Having lived through the Sandy Hook experience, I know that thoughts and prayers are important,” he told ThinkProgress on Friday. “We appreciated them from every corner of the globe.”

But four years later, following yet another mass shooting committed by a couple whose guns were purchased legally, the Connecticut senator has had enough of prayer — at least when it comes from his Senate colleagues.

On Wednesday, hours after the massacre in San Bernardino, Murphy sent out a tweet condemning the many members of Congress who publicly offered “thoughts and prayers” for victims of Wednesday’s massacre in Sen Bernardino.

Murphy subsequently went viral. News outlets like CNN, Vox, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post picked up his remark. He garnered thousands upon thousands of retweets, and words of praise from gun control advocates. “I’m going to have to pay more attention to this guy,” one user wrote. “It’s spot on.”

Others, however, derided him. Murphy himself, they pointed out, had sent out “thoughts and prayers” for victims of tragedies past. Former New York Gov. George Pataki called Murphy’s tweet “Trump-like in its absurdity,” and said he was “disgusted” by the suggestion that prayer wasn’t enough.

On Friday, however, Murphy doubled down on his controversial remarks. He told ThinkProgress that when it comes to Congress, prayers for mass shooting victims are no longer enough. For them, he said, prayer is not part of the job description.

“I don’t deny the importance of expressing sympathies for these shootings, but that’s an insufficient response from elected officials today,” he said. “You get elected to Congress not to send your sympathy tweets, but to pass laws to keep people safer.”

Here’s a transcript of Murphy’s conversation with ThinkProgress, edited down for clarity and brevity:

ThinkProgress: Your tweet was short — 140 characters isn’t a lot. Is there anything you’d like to tack on, that you’d like people to know?

Sen. Chris Murphy: Having lived through the Sandy Hook experience, I know that thoughts and prayers are important. We appreciated them from every corner of the globe. But it wasn’t weeks, but days after the shooting that the Sandy Hook community, including many of the parents, were demanding Congress take action.

It takes two seconds to send out a tweet saying “Sending my thoughts and prayers to San Bernardino.” There’s no sacrifice involved in sending out a message of sympathy. It’s nice, but it’s not of the essence of what our jobs are. Our jobs are to change the law when necessary in order to better protect the people you represent. And right now the laws as they stand leave our constituents open to potential slaughter. It’s as simple as that. We are facilitating the mass murder of Americans by refusing to change the laws on guns and on mental health.

TP: Where were you when you heard about the San Bernardino shooting? How did you react?

CM: You know, it’s tragic that these shootings are starting to blur together for me. I sort of forget where I was when I heard about each one.

I was angry on Wednesday night. I’m still angry today. But really I’ve been angry since December of 2012. It’s just unfathomable to me that in the shadow of this carnage, Congress isn’t even trying to do something to stop it. I accept that there’s no panacea to gun violence — there’s no one bill that would stop every would-be shooter. But what’s maddening and offensive is that we’re not even trying to do anything.

TP: What prompted you to call out your colleagues for their “thoughts and prayers”?

CM: You know, I know that sympathies and thoughts and prayers are important. They were certainly important to us in Newtown. But they’re totally inefficient. You get elected to Congress not to send our sympathy tweets, but to pass laws to keep people safer. And we are utterly failing in that responsibility.

The day that people lose outrage over congressional inaction is the day that this issue is forever lost. Despite the setbacks, I refuse to stop being outraged by Congress’ inaction.

TP: Why do you think so many people responded negatively to your tweet?

CM: I think it’s a case of, thou dost protest too much. People were uncomfortable with what I said because in their hearts, they know that there’s no justification for sympathies that aren’t followed by action. I don’t understand why my colleagues keep on voting against policy measures that are supported by 90 percent of the American public. But I think deep down, they don’t feel comfortable with their policy position either.

TP: That brings me to what happened yesterday. The Senate rejected a whole bunch of gun control measures, including one that would have blocked suspected terrorists from getting guns. And that was one day after San Bernardino. Were you surprised by that outcome?

CM: The whole vote was a surprise. Ninety-nine percent of Americans would agree that suspected terrorists shouldn’t be able to buy guns, and yet 99 percent of Republicans in the Senate think otherwise.

I’m just continually shocked and surprised at the vice-like grip that the [National Rifle Association] has on Republicans in Congress. I think that there will be electoral consequences on some of these votes. I don’t know how you go back to your constituents and explain that people on the terrorist watch list should be able to buy guns.

TP: Our editor, Igor Volsky, struck a chord with a lot of people on Twitter yesterday when he tweeted about the lawmakers who sent only “thoughts and prayers,” along with the money they received from the NRA. The NRA has, conversely, spent thousands trying to prevent you from being elected. How did that effect your campaign?

CM: It didn’t really. I was running against Linda McMahon, who spent $50 million of her own money. So a $50,000 NRA expenditure got lost in the sea of money that my opponent was spending.

But the NRA is a political force, and not just because they spend money. It’s also because their endorsement has become a signal of conservative credentials for candidates. The NRA has been very successful at making their endorsement about something more than their candidates’ position on guns.

Is there a way for Republicans to be able to signal their broader conservative credentials without a 100 percent score from the NRA? I don’t have the answer to that, but we have to recognize that the power of the NRA is not just their membership or the money they spend, but the role they play in the broader conservative movement.

TP: What can be accomplished on gun reform in this Congress?

CM: If it’s not possible to get Republicans to support keeping guns away from terrorists, then the cause may be lost temporarily — for the time being. Two days ago I would have told you that adding those on the terror watch list to the background check system would be a lay-up. So I guess I’m still able to be surprised by how radical many members of the Senate are on guns.

I’ve spent the better part of this year putting together a big, bipartisan consensus on mental health reform. I’ve introduced the Mental Health Reform Act of 2105. It’s a comprehensive set of changes.

If I were in charge, we would be passing a universal background check, a ban on assault weapons, a ban and high capacity magazines, and incentives for states to enact permit to carry laws. There’s no arguing with the data, and that data tells you that states that have tougher gun laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals have lower rates of gun violence and homicides. We have strict gun laws in Connecticut, and I don’t hear many people complaining that they can’t get a gun to protect themselves and go out and hunt.