As gun violence spikes and gun control legislation again fails in the Senate, advocates pursue other ways to bring down numbers

Two days after a school shooting in Michigan, Chris Murphy stood on the Senate floor and made yet another impassioned plea for legislation that would sharply increase the number of gun sales requiring background checks.

Although an expanded background checks bill had already cleared the House of Representatives, Murphy knew the measure had no chance of passing by unanimous consent in the Senate. Over the course of the past year, the Democratic senator from Connecticut had spent months negotiating with Republican John Cornyn of Texas in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to reach an agreement.

“I understand the chances are slim to none that this unanimous consent request will be adopted,” Murphy said. “But I am at my wit’s end. I’m prepared to use whatever means I have as an individual senator to come down here and try and press this case forward.”

Murphy says he isn’t giving up on expanded background checks and other gun control legislation. But given the rules of the Senate and strong Republican opposition, he is not optimistic. Instead, he and other gun violence prevention advocates are looking elsewhere for answers.

“Changing our gun laws is only one part of the solution,” Murphy said in an interview a few hours before asking his colleagues to approve the background check legislation. “America has a violence problem not just because of our loose gun laws but also because a cycle of marginality that plays out in poor neighborhoods that exposes people to this unusually high risk of violence. If you go to the North End or the South End of Hartford, activists there are frankly more interested in community gun violence initiatives than they are in changing gun laws.”

Days after the Sandy Hook School shootings in 2012, then-President Barack Obama came to a prayer vigil in Newtown and pledged to take meaningful action to reduce gun violence in America. Nine years later, major legislation continues to languish in Congress, even as a number of states, including Connecticut, have passed new gun control laws.

“We had it within our grasp to save lives and to help save the world,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal told his Senate colleagues Thursday. “But we failed again and again.”

Yet gun violence prevention advocates say they have cause to be hopeful. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal includes $5 billion for community intervention programs, which identify people at risk for violence and connect them with counseling, education, employment programs and other social services.

“The funding for violence prevention in the Build Back Better bill is going to do a whole lot of good,” said Mark Barden, co-founder and CEO of Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund and the father of Daniel, one of 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Sandy Hook Promise, which was formed by Barden and other parents who lost children in the Newtown school shootings, is focused on intervention efforts to prevent mass shootings in schools. The organization has developed intervention programs to train students and adults to spot warnings before an act of violence occurs.

“No one piece of legislation is going to fix any one thing and no number of pieces of legislation are going to fix everything, but we can make a difference and we can save lives and we can bring these numbers down,” Barden said.

Gun violence can take many forms, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, said Carl Hardrick, a prominent Hartford anti-violence activist. “Brother Carl,” as he is known, has worked as a gang intervention specialist and anti-violence activist since the 1960s; a new institute named for him and focusing on urban violence intervention launched last month.

The aim, Hardrick said, is stopping violence before it happens. “Can you interrupt that shooting? That’s the way we’re looking at it,” he said.

Training violence intervention workers who can connect people with social services is essential, Hardrick said. “Is he homeless? Is his mother on drugs? Is it mental health? We need to put people together with the services they need,” he said. “In order to do that, you’ve got to spend some time with people and build trust. You can’t wait until they’re in trouble to try and solve a problem.”

Passing new laws requiring more background checks won’t necessarily stem urban gun violence, Hardrick said. “Most of the guns that are used aren’t registered,” he said.

Over the summer, the Biden administration announced a comprehensive effort to address the recent spike in gun violence in cities around the nation. The plan directs federal money to community violence intervention programs.

None of this means lawmakers are giving up on gun control.

Murphy delivered an emotional message in the Senate just hours after the Michigan shooting, imploring Congress to act. “This is a choice made by the United States Senate to sit on our hands and do nothing while kids die,” he said.

Murphy acknowledged that the expanded background check bill wouldn’t have necessarily stopped the Michigan tragedy. His critics say he is politicizing the shooting.

“I absolutely believe that advocates and politicians who are seeking to expand gun control use these opportunities to get in front of a microphone,” said Holly Sullivan, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, which represents thousands of gun owners across the state.

Sullivan said she backs education and intervention efforts to stop violence but opposes Murphy’s background check bill. Instead, she supports a Republican amendment authored by Sens. Charles Grassley and Ted Cruz, a measure that Murphy and other Democrats reject.

Murphy says he’s open to compromise, noting that he spent months negotiating with Cornyn. “I will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said Thursday. “But so far, a year into maybe the most deadly year in my political lifetime with respect to gun violence, I haven’t been able to find one Republican taker for a compromise on the issue of background checks.”

Barden acknowledged that waiting for Congress to act has been frustrating. He recalled the moment in 2013 when the gun control compromise put together by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey went down to defeat.

“It’s discouraging that so little or nothing has been done on the federal level in the wake of all these horrific tragedies and not just the mass shootings but the constant daily gun violence that is plaguing our towns and cities across the country every day,” Barden said.

“When the Manchin-Toomey background check bill failed despite enjoying the support of over 90% of America, it was a wake-up call to our organization and to me that the system isn’t working as it’s supposed to or maybe it’s working exactly as it’s supposed to,” he said. “That was a wake-up call for us to look at this issue through an additional lens.”

Gun violence is a complex issue, Barden added. “The encouraging part is there are many solutions.”

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