After Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, a number of politicians offered their "thoughts and prayers" to the victims and their families. This sounds routine — but many found it deeply offensive, as a number of these legislators actually oppose passing new regulations that make it harder to buy guns. One of the offended was Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who was elected to the Senate in 2012 — just a month before the Sandy Hook shooting in his state:
Your "thoughts" should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your "prayers" should be for forgiveness if you do nothing - again.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) December 2, 2015
Murphy's comments struck a nerve, and helped kick off a national debate about "thoughts and prayers" after gun shootings. So I called up the senator to get a sense of where he was coming from. On the phone, Murphy was notably emotional about gun violence: "Many of my colleagues are covering over their cowardice and their fealty to the gun lobby by tweeting out sympathies," he said. When I asked him what he'd say to fellow members of Congress offering their thoughts and prayers while opposing new gun laws, his answer was four words long:
"Get off their ass."
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Zack Beauchamp: Your tweet was pretty strongly worded. Can you expand a bit on what you were going for there?
Chris Murphy: I'm just sick and tired of people's "to do list" after these shootings beginning and ending with tweeting out "thoughts and prayers." Thoughts and prayers are important, but they don't change the reality on the ground in America today.
Thoughts and prayers aren't enough to stem the rising tide of mass shootings. I'm sick. I'm sick and tired of listening to my colleagues check a box with a sympathetic tweet and then go back into hibernation.
I probably shouldn't tweet out of anger, but I've had enough of false sympathy.
ZB: One of the responses to sentiments like yours, which were widely shared, is that you were shaming people for praying. How do you respond to those critics?
CM: Having come from the experience of Sandy Hook, thoughts and prayers are important. But they're not enough. Right now, many of my colleagues begin and end their response to these shootings with tweets. For those of us in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, sympathies don't cut it. Prayers aren't enough.
Listen, I respect and appreciate the importance of prayer, and so do the people in Sandy Hook. But they don't believe that that's sufficient, and I don't believe that's sufficient.
ZB: It seems to me — though, full disclosure, I don't believe in God — that prayers just don't magically make things happen. Even if you do have faith, you're praying for human action: for people to do things, not for a miracle to occur.
CM: I can sort of rephrase that: Prayer is important, but it doesn't pass legislation.
And right now, what is needed is action — for our laws to change so that fewer of these shootings happen. Many of my colleagues are covering over their cowardice and their fealty to the gun lobby by tweeting out sympathies.
ZB: Yesterday, Igor Volsky — an editor at ThinkProgress — retweeted legislators offering their prayers alongside the amount of money they received from the National Rifle Association. Do think that captures the point you're trying to get at here?
Got $2,500 from NRA during the 2014 election cycle, so he'll do little more than pray to prevent gun violence https://t.co/sVXEQUZwX9— igorvolsky (@igorvolsky) December 3, 2015
CM: Look, let me be clear: I've tweeted out my thoughts and prayers in the wake of almost every one of these mass shootings. So I'm not suggesting it's not important to send condolences.
But those messages are becoming totally hollow and meaningless when they're not accompanied by any suggestions for action. The reality is that this Congress is bought and paid for by the gun lobby. And until we break free of the control of the gun lobby, then nothing's gonna change.
ZB: So if we, as you put it, "break free," how easy would it be to stop gun violence? What could Congress do if it wanted to?
CM: I don't think there's any panacea to this epidemic of gun violence. While we've seen a rise in mass shootings, the US has had a high level of gun homicides for a very long time. So there should be a combination of changing our gun laws, increasing our enforcement, [and] economic empowerment.
So the problem isn't simple, and the policy solutions aren't either. What's offensive to me is that some people are using the complicated nature of the solutions as an excuse to do nothing.
FDR's presidency was defined by the idea that the worst thing to do in the face of crisis is nothing — that you should at least engage in some trial and error, and that there was no shame in error as long as you're trying. We're not doing anything. And that's what's inexcusable.
ZB: If you could say one thing to your colleagues — the ones who have been tweeting out thoughts and prayers but also oppose new gun laws — what would tell them?
CM: I'd tell them to get off their ass.