In a Washington run by Baby Boomers and octogenarians, it took two 40-something Democrats with a yin-and-yang approach to get a gun safety deal done.
Chris Murphy had developed self-described “pessimism” in his decadelong quest to rein in gun violence. That’s where Kyrsten Sinema came in, pushing her more liberal friend along.
Their partnership proved exactly what Democrats needed to break through on gun safety after nearly 30 years of attempts. They’re close enough for the triathlete Sinema to give Murphy fitness advice. But the Connecticut progressive also credited the Arizona centrist with maintaining “optimism” that he sometimes struggled to muster.
“I’ve tried every tactic in the book to get this body to act and I’ve never been successful. And so I have a bit of PTSD about negotiations. Kyrsten just was convinced from the very start that this was possible,” Murphy said in an interview on Thursday. “We needed that.”
The Senate’s Thursday night passage of its bipartisan gun safety bill marked a seminal moment for a Democratic Party that pushed through background check mandates in 1993’s Brady Bill but has struggled ever since to reassemble that coalition. Behind this year’s effort is a duo who reflects their party’s ascendant Generation X as well as the future of the caucus: a coalition of stalwart liberals and Sun Belt moderates.
Neither Sinema nor Murphy chair committees or hold formal leadership roles in the Democratic caucus, yet the two senators cut a deal with GOP Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina that will go down in the party’s annals. The legislation would strengthen background checks on young people, deliver billions of dollars for mental health and close a domestic violence loophole for gun buys — a response to a gunman killing 19 children and two adults last month in Uvalde, Texas.
The Democratic pair did it in their own unique styles. Murphy is a loquacious Northeasterner squarely in the party’s left flank. He became a senator in the days after 2012’s devastating school shooting in Newtown, Conn., forming partnerships with gun safety groups that gave him credibility with them at critical moments over the past month.
Sinema is a head-down moderate who’s taken unceasing criticism from the left for defending the filibuster while cutting bipartisan deals on infrastructure and now gun safety. Her close relationships with Republicans are crucial to that success, giving her intuition for where the GOP might land and helping her serve as a go-between for Murphy and Cornyn.
Sinema described her negotiating style succinctly in an interview: “I am unwilling to accept defeat.”
In an interview, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the deal “only would have happened … with a Democratic majority,” citing past Republican reluctance to put gun legislation on the floor. And he gave Sinema and Murphy plenty of room to maneuver.
It helped that they share a track record of working with their Republican counterparts. Sinema partnered with Cornyn on the border and Murphy teamed up with the Texas Republican to improve the guns background check system. While Murphy and Cornyn failed to reach a broader gun deal last year, Murphy suggested those negotiations formed the basis of this year’s agreement.
Even so, Murphy faced doubters. Fred Guttenberg, a gun safety activist who lost his daughter during the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., told Murphy last year to cut off talks with Cornyn and move forward with a floor vote — but the senator pushed back.
“I basically thought Cornyn was a waste of time and you couldn’t trust him. And Murphy considered John Cornyn a friend,” Guttenberg said. “His investment in that relationship, in hindsight, was the right thing to do because it set the table for what happened this week.”