“What are we doing?”
An anguished Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut asked the question seven times Tuesday in brief remarks on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He spoke as the death toll in America’s latest mass shooting reached 16 — a teacher, 14 kids and their young killer. It would grow to 21 hours later.
“What are we doing? Just days after a shooter walked into a grocery store to gun down African American patrons, we have another Sandy Hook on our hands,” Murphy said. “What are we doing?”
The shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday was the deadliest of the more than 200 mass shootings recorded in the United States in the first five months of 2022.
“There are more mass shootings than days in the year. Our kids are living in fear every single time they set foot in a classroom, because they think they’re going to be next,” Murphy said. “What are we doing?”
The answer in the U.S. Senate has been nothing. The universal background checks required to purchase a gun in Connecticut, a key change after Sandy Hook, have been a non-starter in Congress.
It wasn’t what Joe Biden, then the vice president, told an audience in Connecticut nine years ago. “The American people are with us,” Biden told Murphy and others that day. “You should know, there is a moral price for inaction.”
Murphy has a singular status in the Senate. On the Friday 11 days before Christmas in 2012, Murphy bore witness to parents who learned in a firehouse that their first-graders lay dead in classrooms up the hill at Sandy Hook Elementary.
On the Senate floor, Murphy treads a fine line when he talks about “gun safety,” the phrase now preferred over “gun control.” In the past, he has said he seeks to discomfit Republicans in their opposition to background checks, not harden them.
“Why do you spend all this time running for the United States Senate?”Murphy asked Tuesday. “Why do you go through all the hassle of getting this job or putting yourself in a position of authority if your answer is that as this slaughter increases, as our kids run for their lives, we do nothing?
“What are we doing? Why are you here?”
In December 2021, not long after four students were shot to death at Oxford High School in Michigan, Murphy talked about playing the long game on background checks, of making sure that Americans do not accept that nothing can be done. His biggest worry then was that mass shootings become normalized.
It seemed in his thoughts Tuesday.
“This isn’t inevitable. These kids weren’t unlucky. This only happens in this country. And nowhere else. Nowhere else do little kids go to school thinking that they might be shot that day,” Murphy said. “Nowhere else do parents have to talk to their kids, as I have had to do, about why they got locked into a bathroom and told to be quiet for five minutes just in case a bad man entered that building. Nowhere else does that happen except here in the United States of America. It is a choice. It is our choice to let it continue.”
The Sandy Hook victims would be in high school this year. Their surviving classmates were taught safe words to use when they felt overwhelmed, Murphy said. In one classroom, the safe word was “monkey,” a summons for a teacher or a paraprofessional to come and talk.
“Sandy Hook will never ever be the same. This community in Texas will never ever be the same. Why? Why are we here, if not to try to make sure that fewer schools and fewer communities go through what Sandy Hook has gone through, what Uvalde already is going through,” Murphy said. “Our heart is breaking for these families.”
In District of Columbia vs. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a broad ban on guns in Washington D.C. in 2008 and affirmed a constitutional right to possess firearms in the home for protection.
Murphy has suggested that Heller should reassure gun owners there is no slippery slope to gun confiscation or widespread bans, that background checks and safe storage laws are no threat to the Second Amendment. On Tuesday, he pleaded for Republicans in the evenly divided Senate to join him in negotiations.
“I’m here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues,” Murphy said.
He leaned forward, hands pressed together.
“Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely. I understand my Republican colleagues will not agree to everything that I may support, but there is a common denominator that we can find.”
Murphy is the author of a book on violence in America, “The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy.” He did not claim that anything the senators would or could do is a solution to gun violence.
“But by doing something, we at least stopped sending this quiet message of endorsement to these killers whose brains are breaking, who see the highest levels of government doing nothing, shooting after shooting,” he said. “What are we doing? Why are we here?”
He took a breath, then ended where he began.
“What are we doing?”