Why doesn’t winning the moral argument for gun reform suffice? Why might real reform not happen unless some legislators operate more like impassioned activists? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Senator Chris Murphy. This present conversation focuses on Murphy’s book The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy. In 2012, Murphy was elected by Connecticut voters as the US Senate’s youngest member. Prior to serving in the Senate, Murphy represented Connecticut’s fifth district in the US House of Representatives. Since the Newtown school shooting in December 2012, he has become the best-known leader in Congress confronting America’s multiple gun-violence epidemics.
ANDY FITCH: Could we start someplace progressives typically don’t start, with humans’ predisposition towards violence, particularly as a form of self-protection, of domination, and of individual or in-group advancement? And could we complement that evolutionary story with a story from more recent centuries, of humans’ proven capacities to dramatically reduce violence?
CHRIS MURPHY: This conversation about human beings’ natural predisposition towards violence inevitably gets messy and uncomfortable. But facts are facts. We are one of the more violent species. We always have been. Everybody at some point in life has felt this rage instinct, and probably this impulse to lay your hands on someone else.
At the same time, this evolutionary conversation can quickly transform into a rationalization for some pretty awful behaviors. Racist caste systems and forced sterilizations have often taken their justification from false beliefs about certain people’s extreme predispositions. So in the book I try to offer a balanced argument. I think we do need to acknowledge and understand as well as possible this genetic predilection to violence — in order to prioritize setting laws, rules, and norms that can reduce violence. We can’t just ignore this basic biological predisposition of ours (say to protect oneself, or to advance one’s economic interest), and our responsibility to control it.
But as you mentioned, we also have some good news, because a quick survey of human history shows that as a society perfects rules and norms that incentivize nonviolent behaviors, violence rates do decline. We have this 500-year record of proven success setting up rules that reduce violence rates. If the amount of violence happening in the US today makes you uncomfortable (as I think it does for 95 percent of us), then we have the power to decide whether all that violence continues.
In terms of Americans’ own violent tendencies past and present, how has our population’s heterogeneity (in many respects a core strength) provoked distinct forms of group rivalry, conflict, and domination? How in particular have brutal efforts to control indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans propelled “nativist” aggression throughout US history (such as with the emergence of the Know Nothings in the 1850s, or the so-called Redeemers following Reconstruction)?
The human race wasn’t given giant claws or long fangs. Early on, in order to protect ourselves, we had to create groups and tribes. Over time, we developed a species preference for tribal organization. But that also meant we viewed those outside of our group or tribe with suspicion and fear. Sociologists and biologists have reams of research documenting this evolutionary instinct inside humans to fear those “different” from us. That instinct still lives inside us today. Donald Trump figured out how to manipulate this internal trigger, which naturally suspects people who look or sound different. Trump has built a political career around playing to this instinct. Again, humans also can and often do overcome this instinct. But much of our effort to combat violence has to focus on addressing irrational fears still lurking inside humans — and on building cultures of inclusion and empathy that allow us to overcome these fears.
Then specifically for the United States, we do need to start from this country’s founding on massive epidemic-level violence. At our nation’s outset, we slaughtered Native Americans. In order to cheat our way to economic prominence, we imported millions of Africans. We used horrific levels of violence to keep certain groups enslaved and subordinated for hundreds of years. Few modern nations have a more blood-soaked founding than ours. Few countries can shed that kind of legacy in just a couple centuries. So part of the effort to overcome our continued high violence rates has to include a reckoning with this system of domination used for generations by American in-groups against out-groups, especially by white Americans against black Americans.
By extension, how did the emergence of mass-marketed firearms (often through campaigns stoking nativist fears, transforming such weapons into objects of American romance, obscuring the destructive and oppressive realities they bring about) further fuel some of our worst tendencies?
American violence rates really start to diverge from the rest of the world’s in the mid-1800s. That directly coincides with the invention of the repeating revolver handgun. America invents a handgun easily concealed in a pocket. We choose not to regulate this weapon’s distribution in the way that European countries do. With an explosion in handgun ownership, all sorts of disagreements and disputes become much more deadly.
Firearms also help in-groups further control out-groups. Early on, many states had stripped African Americans of gun-ownership rights. Guns then get used by white vigilante gangs at Reconstruction’s end to reassert dominance over African American populations. And the gun marketers figure out how to glamorize dominant groups’ control over oppressed communities of color. Early advertisements for the Colt revolver often show Texas Rangers shooting Native American tribes. The gun industry quickly recognizes that if they can inflame white Americans’ irrational fear of Native Americans or African Americans, that will lead to more gun sales, and to guns’ central place in American culture.
So now for a more modern timeline, could you sketch the NRA’s trajectory from a mainstream early-20th-century civic organization focused on gun safety and stewardship, to a late-20th-century “ruthless political movement” tapping fears among its narrowing base, aggressively protecting industry profits, zealously warding off even the most modest and politically popular gun reforms?
It shocks many Americans to learn that the NRA wrote effective early gun-control laws passed across the US. In the first two decades of the 1900s, the NRA drafted gun-regulation statutes, and distributed these to states for suggested passage. The NRA remained a pretty sleepy marksmanship organization until radical anti-government reactionaries took it over.
The modern NRA’s birth coincides with a moment in American political history when the conservative movement as a whole becomes much more reluctant to compromise, much more hostile to all forms of government. This radicalized conservative movement starts fighting back against all kinds of environmental regulations, civil-rights laws, and consumer protections. This movement realizes that the NRA can operate as a pretty useful mouthpiece for its anti-government crusade — because what sounds scarier than the federal government coming in and confiscating the weapons of American citizens? What sounds more patriotic (to certain conservatives, at least) than the call to arm yourselves in order to defend your community and your country against increasing federal tyranny?
That early NRA position celebrating the right to bear firearms, while recognizing the need for sensible regulation, actually doesn’t sound so different from your own basic orientation today, and your general agreement even with the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia V. Heller decision. What do you see Heller getting right about the (notoriously opaque) Second Amendment declaring that US government cannot comprehensively disarm Americans, but that government can regulate or restrict the purchase, possession, and use of firearms?
Well, many friends and fellow organizers don’t appreciate my decision to effectively endorse this idea that the Constitution does declare a right to private gun ownership. But I’ve come to this conclusion based on everything I’ve read about our Founders’ intent, and the norms existing at that time. I sense that the Second Amendment probably mostly refers to militia organizations. And here we all do need to recognize the paranoia and outright fear that our Founders felt about a standing army, and why they would have devoted an entire amendment to protecting this right of individual citizens to bear arms — so that our federal system never faced the need for a standing army.
But here we also all need to recognize that, by the late 1700s, the US had loads of gun regulations and restrictions. Individuals had to register their guns. They had to report how much gun powder they possessed. Usually for the wrong reasons, laws prohibited broad categories of people from owning guns. States put limits on concealed weapons. So the Second Amendment may have deliberately stopped government from taking away every single weapon from everybody. But it also remained consistent with broad regulation of gun ownership — which, by the way, I think 90 percent of Americans could agree with today.
So in terms of immediate legislative efforts we could and should take, what seems most crucial to you in prioritizing, say: universal background checks, localized gun permits, waiting periods on gun purchases, and regulations extending to secondary firearms markets (such as individual, Internet-based, and gun-show transactions)? Why would this basic bundle of reforms help most to ensure that only the right people possess these lethal weapons, for the right purposes?
Expanding our background-check system remains in many ways the holy grail for gun reform. Data continues telling us that when you rigorously ensure that serious criminals and people with serious mental illness don’t get their hands on firearms, that tends to reduce various sorts of gun violence: from homicides, to suicides, to domestic-violence crimes. States that go beyond universal background checks and require a gun permit receive an additional benefit. After Connecticut passed our gun-permit law, we saw a 40-percent reduction in gun homicides. But I don’t think any responsible gun owner in my state would tell you that they can’t get their hands on a weapon which allows them to protect themselves, or to hunt, or shoot for sport. I don’t sense many gun owners in Connecticut feeling that their rights have been unreasonably restricted, though we now have the strictest gun laws in the nation.
The anti-gun violence movement really has this striking advantage of broad popular support for the measures that bring the biggest impact. It doesn’t take difficult, highly controversial changes to get the big reductions. Actually, with the most popular interventions (like universal background checks or gun-permit laws), we almost immediately tend to see drops of 10, 20, or 30 percent in violence.
Yeah, do you want to add here why those common-sense procedural measures matter even more than regulating the types, or the extreme lethality, of certain weapons or ammunitions?
Mass shootings get the most attention, but represent only a tiny minority of gun crimes. You still have more chance of a falling object killing you than of dying in a mass shooting. So while I do believe in my bones that if we banned AR-15 sales this would dramatically reduce the number of mass shootings, even if you eliminated every mass shooting, you’d still have a gun-violence rate in the US 10 times higher than the global average for high-income countries. So even with much of our national conversation around gun violence centered on these mass shootings, I feel a strong personal responsibility to deliver policy changes that reduce all kinds of gun violence — not just those that end up on the cable-news shows.
So now to pivot from humans checking our innate violent tendencies through external codes of behavior, to humans cultivating an increased empathy for others, could we in fact discuss how the horrors of the Sandy Hook shooting have fundamentally stamped your own adult life, both in terms of forging your intimate connection to the victims’ families, and in terms of forcing you to grapple with forms of everyday violence all too easy for certain Americans to ignore — for instance the corrosive gun violence in impoverished, politically marginalized communities of color not so far from Sandy Hook?
I’ve had the good fortune to lead a pretty cushy life. Growing up, I didn’t have to worry about whether we’d have breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table. I always had a roof overhead. No close relative died tragically at a young age. No single major traumatic episode set me back as a child. My family had setbacks, and heartbreak, but we didn’t face catastrophes. And while I was drawn into government for the right reasons, I didn’t have that direct connection to people’s pain and suffering which I consider pretty important for public service.
Over the past seven years, getting to know intimately many families who have lost kids to gun violence in places like Sandy Hook and Hartford and New Haven has changed me. Look, I’m still an interloper. I didn’t lose a son or daughter. But I feel close enough to that pain, and emotionally connected enough to these families, that a psychological imperative has taken hold to get something done on this issue. If I don’t, then I’ll feel as if my whole political career has failed. And I just didn’t have that kind of driving force behind my work before 2012.
As I say in the book, as much as the Sandy Hook experience has to change you, one community-center meeting, on the north end of Hartford, had an even greater impact. At this meeting, for the first time, a speaker shamed me. I felt so shameful for having grown up a few miles from neighborhoods where kids feared for their lives every single day just walking to school. Why hadn’t I cared more about that? Why hadn’t I worked more diligently on that problem in my early years of public service? Maybe I hadn’t worked much on mass shootings because we hadn’t yet experienced one in my state. But kids had died in Hartford every single month, and I hadn’t done enough about it. That meeting at the community center really caused me to reassess what I needed to do, and how hard I had to fight on this issue.
Here we also start addressing yet another of the most foundational human means for overcoming our violent predispositions: through the establishment of rule of law, and the catalyst of economic opportunity — both providing critical alternatives to zero-sum retributive or rivalrous violence. Why can’t America realistically expect to reduce rates of violence in our most vulnerable communities without systematically correcting for a legacy in which these essential components of a peaceful society long have been denied?
Understanding the broad historical sweep of human violence again helps a lot here. Looking to the past, we can see more clearly what works and what doesn’t. We find that European violence drops significantly once societies can move beyond a zero-sum economy. Once people can see avenues to survival and security and prosperity through means other than violence, they readily take those pathways. But when they don’t have these alternate routes to survival, then they often resort to violent means.
More than any other fact or statement I came across while researching this book, one question from an older man in Baltimore rattles around in my brain. We’d been discussing why Baltimore has become more and more violent. And he asked me: “You ever been hungry?” He told me that real hunger, daily hunger, hardens your heart. He made it perfectly clear that when humans can’t put food on the table, and have no pathway to a job, then we’ll do anything, even engage in violent acts, in order to survive. If we don’t learn from human history, if we don’t listen to people like that thoughtful man in Baltimore, and start creating pathways to survival and success that don’t depend on violence, then these violent outcomes shouldn’t surprise us.
At the same time, and as your question suggests, in many impoverished black communities today, we have both an over-policing and an under-policing problem. Black Americans routinely get harassed by our police forces. This also means those police forces place less attention on crimes that should get addressed. When you don’t have murders solved and perpetrators charged in places like Baltimore or Los Angeles or New Orleans, that creates incentives for a private system of justice. When police then re-assert themselves through violence towards communities of color, that further rationalizes and legitimates violence as a mechanism for order. Violence becomes even more widespread.
Accounts of present-day American violence often prioritize (as we have today) urban communities where the most concentrated poverty exists. But could you also speak to perhaps our least-discussed form of widespread American violence, an escalating suicide epidemic particularly rampant among lower-income rural white men? Again, why would the most immediately effective intervention here involve sensible gun regulations? And why would the most comprehensive longer-term intervention involve addressing the despairs (both individual and communal) of economic/social displacement?
For obvious reasons, we have a really hard time talking about suicide. But we do have to grapple with the fact that the population most affected by America’s suicide epidemic differs in revealing ways from the population most impacted by America’s homicide epidemic. If not for the high rates of suicide among white rural males, America’s suicide rate would look pretty middling compared to global averages. And we know that while suicide sometimes occurs in response to tragic personal events, or as a result of mental illness, suicide mostly takes place among individuals who feel completely dislocated from their social context.
In America, as the group once called our “blue-collar aristocracy” has disappeared, as many white males have felt a strong sense of losing control over their lives, of getting dislodged from their position in their community and in society, their rates of suicide have dramatically increased. And of course when we discuss certain white males losing what they consider their rightful place, those expectations say much about who sits where in our social hierarchy. If white men have farther to fall today, that also should tell us much about the constraints that women and people of color have faced for a lot longer.
So two important conversations spring forth from all of that. First, we do need to restore a sense of dignity to these men’s lives. When you can’t find a job to pay the bills, and allow you to provide opportunities for your kids, and save for your own retirement, that creates a sense of helplessness and isolation and despair. But second, we need to have a conversation together about why white males have no natural superior place in our society, above other Americans. Having honest conversations about breaking down the white patriarchy can help to reset expectations, and perhaps guard against this sense of rapid decline and loss of status for a lot of these men.
In what ways does domestic violence, both in the US and abroad, also track closely to economic despair? And how do distinctly American patterns of gun-related domestic abuse blur the lines between potentially homicidal violence, acute intimidation, and everyday domination?
Research on background checks shows that one of the most significant reductions in criminal behavior comes from fewer domestic-violence murders. Domestic violence is the stickiest type of violent behavior to change through public policy. But direct government intervention definitely can make this violence less lethal.
In America, the ease of access to weapons again stands out. Background-check laws won’t necessarily reduce rates of domestic violence, but will at least reduce significantly the likelihood of lethal violence, and will give many women a much better chance of escaping from that cycle of violence. I want for this book to make clear that guns don’t just get used to kill or to harm women. They get used to control women. Coercive behavior operates much more effectively with a gun in the house. Just the threat of using that gun gives expanded power to men in so many abusive relationships.
Now in terms of holding government officials accountable for appropriate legislation and enforcement in response to these horrors of mass shootings, as well as of everyday violence (and, you add, copycat crimes of various sorts), when does it seem morally justifiable to present congressional colleagues as actively complicit in this carnage that they too claim to abhor?
I do have this belief deep in my bones that our refusal to act in Washington has become an unintentional (but important) endorsement of mass shooters. I know my colleagues don’t mean to endorse mass shootings, but when we fail to signal, at the highest levels of government, condemnation of these horrors happening in our country, that acts as a kind of quiet permission-slip for folks contemplating further acts of mass violence. So I do think our inaction makes Congress an accomplice.
I also don’t consider it coincidental that, after the two most important gun-control laws passed by Congress in the last century, violence rates in the US dramatically declined. And that can’t have happened solely through the operational effect of these laws. That also has to indicate how the actions taken by our legislative bodies affect private-sector norms. Sometimes private-sector norms change, and that causes legislation to change. But sometimes legislative changes reshape our private-sector norms. That can happen, and has happened when Congress steps up to pass major anti-gun violence legislation. That’s what I believe will happen when we finally get a bill done.
Could we close then on you describing devoting your career to this cause of reducing American violence, and increasingly feeling as much like an activist as a government official? When you speak, for example, of anti-gun violence movements now needing to acquire the requisite political muscle, when does building up that muscle mean developing the brains for successful long-term policy implementation, the brawn for tenacious organizational tactics, or the heart for impassioned personal commitments? And of course we need to combine these forces, but what convinces you that the balance you have now works better than the balance you had when entering Congress in 2007? Why won’t essential gun reform happen unless some Senators feel and operate more like impassioned activists?
Well when I first got to Congress, I acted like a traditional, more conventional legislator most of the time. I saw my job as introducing legislation, passing legislation, holding press conferences on this legislation, then returning to my district for town halls with my constituents. I think I was good at my job. But I don’t think I broke the mold.
Now I act differently. I organize my time differently. I’ve recognized that I didn’t lose the argument on background checks in 2013. My side just didn’t have enough political power. Nobody had to fear us at election time. So today a big chunk of my work goes to helping organize the national anti-gun violence movement, because I’ve figured out that Republican colleagues won’t just suddenly have some senatorial epiphany on this issue. They won’t vote for universal background checks until they sense that they’ll lose their next election if they don’t. So that means I need to spend a lot of time raising money for anti-gun violence groups, and recruiting volunteers, and helping to build this political movement that finally has become stronger than the gun lobby.
That certainly might categorize me, on many days, as an activist more than a legislator. But I’ve also found that this position does make me a much more effective activist than I could otherwise hope to be. More people will take my calls. More people will come to meetings in which I participate — because I’m a United States Senator. All of that keeps teaching me how to harness this legislative role to more effectively organize.
Portrait of Senator Chris Murphy by Jocelyn Augustino.