By Lorraine Connelly
With 2020 behind us, we were ready to glide into 2021 buoyed by a wellspring of hopefulness and optimism when six days into the New Year our nation experienced a hard landing — the type that in an aircraft can cause passenger discomfort, structural damage, and even loss of life. On January 6, the U.S. Capitol, the bastion of American democracy, was stormed by an angry mob of protesters intent on disrupting the certification of a presidential election, thereby obstructing the peaceful transfer of power. As citizen passengers on this great American experiment called democracy, we witnessed all three impactful outcomes — discomfort, damage, and death.
Lawmakers have called the assault on the Capitol “domestic terrorism,” which the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines as “Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences.” Following the siege on the Capitol, 90 arrests were made, and at least six firearms were confiscated, including long guns and handguns.
Such violence makes clear the sobering realization that politics has become divisive, personal, and now, ugly and armed. Candidates who seek public office, at the local, state or national level, will likely now have to dig deeper than ever to find a reason to run. That’s why I was especially drawn to Sen. Chris Murphy’s book published last fall, “The Violence Inside Us A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy.” Perhaps its title was off-putting to some, or it fell under readers’ radar during the pandemic, but Murphy’s book is an exceptionally timely and thoughtful exposé of “the decades-long simmering epidemic of violence in America.”
The book is really the story of how Murphy’s career found its ballast and soul under the most tragic of circumstances. Before running for the U.S. Senate in 2012, Murphy was a state senator and then served three terms as a U.S. Congressman. Heading into the U.S. Senate election, an article appeared in The Connecticut Post that cast him as “a solid and unspectacular swimmer in a sea of 435 members of the House.” Stung by this characterization, Murphy admits it contained a grain of truth, “I knew the driving, personal connection to a cause or an issue that drove many of my colleagues had eluded me.”
Fast-forward to December 14, 2012. Within weeks of winning the election, the junior senator found himself at a crossroad with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In its aftermath, Murphy realized he could no longer legislate within the shadows and soon emerged as the leading Congressional voice for stronger gun control. Although Connecticut passed new restrictions on the existing assault weapons ban and required universal background checks for all firearm purchases, a bipartisan piece of congressional legislation that would have required background checks on private party firearm sales was defeated on the U.S. Senate floor.
Then, in 2016, in the wake of yet another mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Murphy, launched a filibuster in the Senate that lasted 14 hours and 50 minutes until Congress agreed to act on modified gun control legislation. Victory, Murphy discovered, was a marathon, not a sprint.
In his book, Murphy explores the intent of the Second Amendment “right to bear arms,” suggesting those who wrote and ratified our Constitution were actually comfortable with a heavy regulatory hand on the bearing of arms. He also examines the unique influences that are the roots of American violence: “racism, xenophobia, and the intentional impoverishment of communities of color — that explain why so many kinds of violence in our nation look unlike anything else in the advanced world.” While violence may be a part of our nation’s DNA, Murphy concludes, it “does not have to be our destiny. It is preventable, if we simply decide to make better choices as a nation.”
The violence that took place at the Capitol — the pent-up anger of groups of deeply aggrieved individuals coupled by easy access to guns — does not have to be our destiny. Said the Senator of the violence that day, “It will not succeed. It will not stop us from doing the work of democracy.” But what must it take to alter this trajectory of violence? The leadership of a Senator Murphy, and other likeminded public servants, who are committed to doing the work of democracy and to addressing the systemic roots of American violence are hopeful and necessary steps in maintaining our American democracy.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.