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Clinton Loss Would Hobble Gun Reform, Says Connecticut Senator

If Donald Trump wins, it will be a pretty dramatic setback’

From Time — Con­necti­cut Sen. Chris Mur­phy does not shy away from the fact that guns on are on the nation­al bal­lot this Novem­ber.

If Don­ald Trump wins, it will be a pret­ty dra­mat­ic set­back,” says Mur­phy, who has emerged as the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s most vocal cham­pi­on of new gun reg­u­la­tion. “Not just because how ter­ri­ble he’ll be on the issue, but the fact that a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who ran ask­ing for a man­date on guns lost.”

For Mur­phy, the fight is per­son­al. He had just been elect­ed to the Sen­ate in 2012 when word arrived that there had been an inci­dent at an ele­men­tary school in his House dis­trict. The Sen­a­tor-elect watched in hor­ror as New­town, Conn., became the site of the dead­liest mass school shoot­ing in U.S. his­to­ry.

Mur­phy, an earnest leg­is­la­tor who first won elec­tion at age 25, want­ed to know what he and oth­er law­mak­ers could do to help fam­i­lies who were affect­ed by the scene unfold­ing at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School, and how he might pre­vent sim­i­lar future inci­dents. His efforts, the Demo­c­rat acknowl­edged over a break­fast inter­view with TIME this week, were per­haps ahead of their time, if not pre­ma­ture.

Sandy Hook was so cataclysmic—was so out­side of the norm—that people’s reac­tion was all about sim­ply fig­ur­ing out how to process it, how to rec­on­cile that lev­el of evil,” Mur­phy said dur­ing a can­did con­ver­sa­tion on Aug. 17. “They were try­ing to rec­on­cile how Sandy Hook could exist in a civ­i­lized world.” No dis­cus­sion of pol­i­cy or pol­i­tics, he said, could break through the dis­be­lief roil­ing his con­stituents, his col­leagues and the nation, no mat­ter how much he saw a chance to do good.

His ensu­ing efforts came up in defeat large­ly at the hands of the Nation­al Rifle Asso­ci­a­tion. Mur­phy is now eye­ing action in 2017, which he hopes will be achieved by a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty-led Sen­ate, if com­rades can pick up a net six Sen­ate seats, and cham­pi­oned by Hillary Clin­ton, who is the most stri­dent­ly pro-gun-con­trol pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee ever. “We have had time now, and a nev­er-end­ing trend line of mass atroc­i­ties, to think about how pol­i­cy can change to make this less like­ly,” Mur­phy said as he picked at smoked salmon on a bagel.

Pub­lic opin­ion, at the moment, is on Murphy’s side, at least for incre­men­tal changes to the nation’s rules for buy­ing guns. Vot­ers seem to favor poli­cies he is push­ing: back­ground checks, lim­its on online sales, mea­sures to keep sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists from buy­ing a gun at Wal-Mart. Pol­i­tics, how­ev­er, is iffy. “I’m not sure that our move­ment is ready yet to beat the gun lob­by,” he said, using the poll­ster-craft­ed ref­er­ence to the NRA. “I’m not sure that we’re strong enough. I’m not sure that we’re big enough. I don’t want to over-state the move­ment.”

Can­di­dates are fac­ing pres­sure for their votes on gun restric­tions. Sen. Kel­ly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire is locked in a tight race for her sec­ond term rep­re­sent­ing a state where guns are part of the DNA. Sen. Pat Toomey of Penn­syl­va­nia faces skep­ti­cism from the Right over his work to boost back­ground checks in the wake of New­town. The Democ­rats devot­ed hours of Clinton’s nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tion to the top­ic, open­ly call­ing on tighter restric­tions to pre­vent future mas­sacres. “Some­thing has changed with­in our par­ty,” Mur­phy said.

Indeed, cam­paign con­sul­tants for a gen­er­a­tion were lean­ing on the lessons of Bill Clinton’s crime bill in 1994. Law­mak­ers who sup­port­ed it found them­selves out of a job, as the NRA came after them with mil­lions in neg­a­tive ads. Repub­li­cans default­ed to the NRA posi­tion from a mix of fear and prag­ma­tism.

You were told, as a Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date, you should stay away from guns. Democ­rats (now) have decid­ed that this a core val­ue for our par­ty and it’s a win­ning polit­i­cal issue,” Mur­phy said. “It’s become a lit­mus test for Democ­rats. You have to be strong on the issue of guns or you are inel­i­gi­ble for Lead­er­ship in our par­ty.”

But that’s not to say there is the polit­i­cal infra­struc­ture to back them up. “The anti-gun vio­lence move­ment was essen­tial­ly asleep from 1994 to 2012 and dur­ing that time, the NRA and the gun lob­by built up an incred­i­bly impres­sive polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion,” Mur­phy said. “The mod­ern move­ment to stop gun vio­lence and to take ille­gal weapons off our streets is less than four years old.”

Indeed, it’s a move­ment in its infan­cy. For­mer New York May­or Michael Bloomberg has spent mil­lions to crit­i­cize pro-NRA politi­cians with lim­it­ed effi­ca­cy. For­mer Rep. Gab­by Gif­fords, who sur­vived a 2011 assas­si­na­tion attempt, has led an anti-gun vio­lence group that is prepar­ing an active fall cam­paign, both on the ground and on tele­vi­sions. And grass­roots activists are see­ing an oppor­tu­ni­ty to run against the NRA, even if some Demo­c­ra­t­ic cam­paigns are only luke­warm to the strat­e­gy.

Have faith, Mur­phy argues. The shoot­ing at a gay night­club in Orlan­do on a Sat­ur­day night in June became the dead­liest mass shoot­ing in U.S. his­to­ry. Forty-nine peo­ple, plus the gun­man, died in a shoot­ing that is said to have been inspired by Islam­ic extrem­ism. “It was fun­da­men­tal­ly dis­rup­tive with the elec­torate. The new inter­sec­tion of law enforce­ment and ter­ror­ism has caused vot­ers to ele­vate the issue on their pri­or­i­ty list,” Mur­phy said. “Orlan­do was a pol­i­cy tip­ping point. They now knew how to react psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly to these tragedies because they had prac­ticed it and they were ready to think about pol­i­cy.”

That’s not to say Mur­phy expects the NRA to be side­lined any time soon. “I think it’s still very pow­er­ful, 10 years from now. It is whether the NRA has a vice-like grip on the Repub­li­can Par­ty, or whether it is anoth­er inter­est groups that wins some bat­tles and los­es some bat­tles. They have not lost a fight in decades,” Mur­phy said. “My hope is that 10 years from now, while the NRA will still be pow­er­ful, Repub­li­cans will get used to step­ping out and occa­sion­al­ly take on the NRA.”

Mur­phy likens the NRA to anoth­er indus­try that sur­vives but with a sig­nif­i­cant­ly dam­aged pub­lic image. “Guns are the new cig­a­rettes,” he said.

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