WASHINGTON— A Democratic senator frustrated with congressional inaction on gun violence led a nearly 15-hour Senate filibuster before yielding the floor early Thursday, making a pledge that he and his colleagues would press hard for more gun control three days after 49 people were killed at a Florida nightclub.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy ended a series of speeches with his Democratic colleagues at 2:11 a.m EDT after promising at the outset that he would remain on the Senate floor “until we get some signal, some sign that we can come together.” At the end, he said he had won commitments from Republican leaders that they would hold votes on amendments to expand background checks and ban gun sales to suspected terrorists. It is unlikely that those amendments will pass.
Murphy evoked the Newtown school shooting in his state in 2012, and ended his long day with a story of a young boy who was killed in that massacre. Twenty children and six educators died in a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. Murphy, 42 and the father of two young boys, said he cannot look into the eyes of those children’s relatives and tell them that Congress has done nothing since.
“For those of us that represent Connecticut, the failure of this body to do anything, anything at all in the face of that continued slaughter isn’t just painful to us, it’s unconscionable,” Murphy said.
Murphy’s filibuster started Wednesday as presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said he would meet with the National Rifle Association about the terror watch list and gun purchases. The tragedy in Orlando, Florida early Sunday was in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The election-year fight over gun control in the wake of the shootings pits strong proponents of the Second Amendment right to bear arms against those arguing for greater restrictions on the ability to obtain weapons. Trump, who has the endorsement of the NRA, told a rally in Georgia, “I’m going to save your Second Amendment.”
Attempts at compromise appeared to collapse within hours of surfacing in the Senate Wednesday, underscoring the extreme difficulty of resolving the divisive issue five months to the election. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who had been involved in talks with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said there was no resolution.
Murphy began speaking at 11:21 a.m., and he showed few signs of fatigue as it ended. By Senate rules, he had to stand at his desk to maintain control of the floor. When asked by another senator how he was feeling just before 7:30 p.m., Murphy said rehabilitation from a back injury in his 20s had helped him build up endurance.
As tourists and staff — and at one point in the evening, Murphy’s two sons — looked on from the galleries, the senator maintained his filibuster to a mostly empty chamber, save for a series of Democratic senators who joined him and made their own speeches through the day. Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Cory Booker of New Jersey stayed with Murphy on the floor for most of the debate.
For those following from afar, Democrats gave updates on Twitter using hashtag “#enough.”
It’s been nearly a decade since Congress made any significant changes to federal gun laws. In April 2007, Congress passed a law to strengthen the instant background check system after a gunman at Virginia Tech who killed 32 people was able to purchase his weapons because his mental health history was not in the instant background check database.
Murphy is seeking a vote on legislation from Feinstein that would let the government bar sales of guns and explosives to people it suspects of being terrorists. Feinstein offered a similar version of the amendment in December, a day after an extremist couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, but the Republican-run Senate rejected the proposal on a near party-line vote. Murphy also wants a vote to expand background checks.
The Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, was added to a government watch list of individuals known or suspected of being involved in terrorist activities in 2013, when he was investigated for inflammatory statements to co-workers. But he was pulled from that database when that investigation was closed 10 months later.
Trump said he would meet with the NRA to discuss ways to block people on terrorism watch lists or no-fly lists from buying guns. That wouldn’t have blocked Mateen from buying a gun, however, since he’d been pulled from the watch list.
In a statement, the NRA said it was happy to meet with Trump and reiterated its support for a bill from Cornyn that would let the government delay firearms sales to suspected terrorists for up to 72 hours. Prosecutors would have to persuade a judge to block the transaction permanently, a bar Democrats and gun control activists say is too high.
Cornyn and other Republicans argue that Feinstein’s bill denies due process to people who may be on the terror list erroneously and are trying to exercise their constitutional right to gun ownership.
Separately, Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said it was working on a compromise with Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Republican in a tough re-election race this year who has sought compromise in the past on gun control measures.
By the end of the day, Toomey had introduced legislation that would direct the attorney general to create a new list of suspected terrorists who could be barred from buying weapons. But Democrats immediately rejected that idea, saying it would create too much of a backlog.