For Murphy and Esty, Newtown defines terms

When Chris Murphy ran for office last November, he campaigned on a platform largely comprised of economic planks: promoting American manufacturing, simplifying the tax code and investing in transportation, among others. But as he conducts business on Capitol Hill as the freshman Connecticut senator, the December shooting in Newtown, Conn., weighs heavily on his term and Murphy himself, providing both direction and difficulty.

“The Newtown shooting changed everything,” Murphy said in a Tuesday email to the News. “I don’t think anybody who’s talked to the families of those children, or the survivors, or the first responders there that day wasn’t fundamentally changed by it.”

The shooting in their home state has left its mark on the terms of Murphy and U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty LAW ’85, the two new members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation. Since arriving in Washington less than two months ago, they have assumed a central role in the gun control debate. Murphy in particular has displayed an outspokenness unusual for the  Senate, where newcomers often stay quiet for months. Their continued push for new gun laws articulates the reshaped political landscape that envelops Connecticut’s seven-member congressional delegation, for whom Connecticut’s moniker of the “land of steady habits” has been replaced by the memory of tragedy.

BEFORE AND AFTER NEWTOWN

Despite dozens of mass shootings across the country, no significant legislative pushes have emerged since the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004. In 2007, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe expressed the prevailing political sentiment when he warned Democratic candidates that gun control was a “third rail loser,” suggesting that it was too controversial to even discuss.

Candidates nationwide displayed their hesitation to discuss gun violence during the 2012 election, in which the issue played little to no role. On the six 2012 campaign websites of Connecticut’s current congressional delegation, for instance, not a single instance of the word “gun” can be found.

After the November election, Murphy emerged victorious without a clear definition of the issues on which he would later seek to distinguish himself, but appeared focused on job creation and the economy, as did Etsy.

Yet just over a month after their victories, the trajectory of Murphy and Esty’s terms shifted drastically as the two, before even arriving in Washington, took up the mantle of new gun regulation.

“My Senate career will be much different because of this episode,” Murphy told the Associated Press in an interview four days after the shooting. “I’m going to judge myself as a senator by whether or not I’ve worked every hour and every day to make something good happen from these kids’ deaths.”

He added that there was a “common commitment amongst the Connecticut delegation to be leaders on a renewed national conversation to end this horrific gun violence.” Esty, who spent 10 to 14 hours a day in Newtown — which is a part of her district — in the days after the shooting, reiterated this sentiment. Less than a week after the shooting, which she described as a “watershed moment,” Esty began calling on lawmakers to pass gun reforms.

Since Newtown, Murphy, along with Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has become one of the leading advocates of new gun laws. The three introduced the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 in late January, which would ban assault weapons in addition to magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds.

“If assault weapons and high capacity magazines were not so readily available, including the weapon Adam Lanza used to take 26 lives last month, there would be more little boys and girls alive in Newtown today,” Murphy said in a January statement about the bill.

Esty has also taken a forceful stance on the issue in response to the “resounding call” she has heard from residents of her district. As a member of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, she has played an instrumental role in developing the group’s call for a federal assault weapons ban and universal background checks.

POLITICAL REALITIES

Murphy and Esty’s efforts have been tempered by political realities. Proponents of an assault weapons ban have conceded that passage of a ban would be “tough,” as Blumenthal told the News last month, particularly as any major legislation will only become more difficult to pass as public furor fades. Even President Barack Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, opted instead to insist simply on a vote rather than on a ban itself.

While not forgoing an assault weapons ban, Murphy and others have shifted their attention to universal background checks and a ban on high capacity magazines, where Murphy acknowledged there is more consensus. According to a Quinnipiac poll earlier this month, 92 percent of voters support universal background checks on gun purchases, and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said on “Meet the Press” that a bipartisan group of senators is currently working on a bill to institute them.

The National Rifle Association forcefully opposes any new regulation, arguing that proponents of new gun laws do not respect Second Amendment rights. Murphy especially has been the subject of fierce NRA criticism.

Citing lawmakers’ fears of the NRA’s influence, Murphy has sought to discredit the organization through three studies released jointly with the Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization that claim that perceptions of the NRA’s influence outweigh reality, the organization is beholden to gun manufacturers and its own membership does not support many of its policies.The NRA strongly disputed the reports.

“Chris Murphy just wanted to get his name in the news,” NRA spokeswoman Jacqueline Otto said. “He didn’t do any research himself.”

On Thursday, Murphy, Esty and Blumenthal will host a conference on gun violence at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, where Vice President Joe Biden, who has led the White House’s push for new legislation, will deliver the keynote address. Murphy said in a Monday press call that the conference would not be a debate on gun control, but instead a forum for those working on new legislation.

The conference will come one day after Esty hosts a town hall in Waterbury to discuss the recommendations of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.

“What happened almost two months ago in Newtown was an unimaginable tragedy,” Esty said in a statement earlier this month. “What happens now is up to us.”

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