Have We Reached the Tipping Point of Gun Control?

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From left: Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Connecticut Democrats, depart the Senate floor directly after an almost 15-hour filibuster in the hopes of pressuring their Republican colleagues to act on enacting gun-control measures, at the U.S. Capitol on June 16. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Over the past 30 hours, the gun debate in America has taken a dramatic turn.

At 2:11 a.m. on Thursday, Democratic Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy declared victory, 14 hours and 50 minutes after he took over the chamber floor to protest Congress' years-long inaction on gun control measures. Beginning at 11:21 a.m. on Wednesday, three days after 49 individuals were killed by a gunman in the Orlando, Florida, nightclub mass shooting, Murphy vowed not to concede until Senate Republicans agreed to allow two votes: one to prohibit suspected terrorists from buying guns, and another to expand background checks on potential gun purchases. By Thursday, there wasn't a hard guarantee that either amendment would pass, but Murphy implied there was an understanding from both sides that votes needed to be cast to curb gun violence in the United States.

At a press conference on Thursday morning, which had a tagline of "disarm hate," Senate Democrats were joined by Tina Meins, whose father was killed in the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, and by the Reverend Sharon Risher, whose mother and two cousins died in the June 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. They argued the country has reached a tipping point in the gun movement, enhanced by Americans' ongoing fear of terrorism, including homegrown lone wolves and the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS. "Everyone realizes that the terrorist we need to fear is not on the streets of Aleppo or Mosul or Fallujah," Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey told reporters Thursday morning. "It's on the streets of the United States. And they will have guns unless we pass tough laws."

Markey said legislators are at the juncture where they are close to having a showdown in the Senate on the issue of gun control in the U.S.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who remained in the Senate chamber for the duration of Murphy's 14-hour-50-minute filibuster, said Americans want change, and the hot-button issue of guns in America right now presents an opportunity to show the country that it's possible.

"The most difficult question I am asked, having spent the better part of 25 years on this issue, is 'What has changed?'" he said. "The answer is that Americans have changed in their realization that gun violence cannot only be prevented, but it must be prevented."

Murphy is an outspoken gun control advocate, whose state is home to Newtown, where the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre occurred. His filibuster began when he interrupted a Senate debate on the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill, in which Democrats had demanded the inclusion of gun amendments.

"My legs are a little bit rubbery, but my heart is strong this morning because I know that we made a difference yesterday, and I know that we galvanized support all across this country," he told reporters.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, also said seven months ago that the gun control movement is at a tipping point. "We're finally at the precipice we've been waiting for," he said at a Brady Campaign event in November. The organization, one of the leading gun control advocacy groups, works to extend background checks at the national level to all sales of firearms, including at gun shows and online. Federal law currently doesn't apply to about 40 percent of total gun sales that occur each day.

At the media event Thursday—the eve of the one-year mark of the deadly Charleston shooting—in which nine black worshippers were gunned down during Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—Murphy gathered with his colleagues to discuss the immediate steps they could take to reduce gun violence. They vowed to continue the fight until change occurs. He said Senate Democrats decided to take the floor on Wednesday because the legislative body had been ignoring the Orlando massacre. Overnight, he ended the filibuster with the story of 6-year-old Dylan Hockley and a teacher's aide, Anne Marie Murphy, who tried to shield the boy from bullets in the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre; both were two of the 26 individuals killed on December 14, 2012.

Both pending measures Murphy stood behind on the Senate floor are backed by Democrats. The first, an amendment California Senator Dianne Feinstein offered in December after San Bernardino, would allow the government to ban those on federal terror watch lists from buying guns and explosives. Murphy discussed the second on the Senate floor, which would mandate universal background checks for all gun sales, including at gun shows and online.

As for the GOP plan, Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn, the Senate Majority Whip and second-ranking Senate Republican, described a rival proposal on the Senate floor Thursday that would notify law enforcement officials when an individual who is on the terror watch list tries to purchase a firearm. The U.S. Department of Justice then would have 72 hours to show probable cause that the possible buyer has committed or could commit a terrorist act. His proposal, along with Feinstein's, already was struck down in December after the San Bernardino massacre.

Feinstein and Cornyn now are discussing a way to reach a compromise on their two measures. At the press conference, Feinstein said the Senate likely could vote on her legislation Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Republican Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, who in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre co-wrote a background checks bill that in April 2013 the Senate ultimately struck down, joined Murphy on the floor Wednesday to urge his colleagues to ensure suspected terrorists can't buy guns. His legislation would require the attorney general to create an annually adjusted list of likely terrorists who could be blocked from buying guns.

During his filibuster, Murphy permitted questions from 40 of his Democratic colleagues, including Senators Blumenthal, Markey and Charles Schumer. But he never conceded the floor. His efforts were applauded by politicians and activists across the country: Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, her rival Bernie Sanders and Erica Lafferty Smegielski, whose mother died at Sandy Hook Elementary, all commended his actions. After the eight-hour mark, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid issued a statement, urging Republicans "to find the courage" to stand up to the National Rifle Association by joining Democrats to demand change. He also called the negotiations "little more than a smokescreen" from the GOP attempting to give themselves political cover while they march in lockstep with the NRA.

It will soon be determined whether the Democrats have found an unexpected ally in Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump on the matter. The New York billionaire on Twitter Wednesday expressed interest in meeting with the NRA to discuss "not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no-fly list, to buy guns." The lobbying group, which boasts more than 4 million members, responded by saying its leaders are happy to have a conversation with Trump, whom they endorsed in May, but on Wednesday said that its objective remains ensuring that Americans wrongly placed on the list are given their legal rights to due process. Republican leaders share the NRA's view that stricter gun laws would undercut the Second Amendment.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who also remained in the chamber through the duration of Murphy's filibuster, on Thursday called on his colleagues to have "courageous empathy" to ensure domestic tranquility because victims aren't content to wait for change.

"This is a fight that should not belong only to the victims of gun violence," he said. "This is an American fight."