By Nick Erickson
On Dec. 14, 2012, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who had just been elected as a first-time senator a month earlier and hadn’t yet taken his oath of office, was about to board a New York-bound train to see Christmas decorations with his then 4- and 1-year old kids when he got word that a gunman brought an assault rifle into a Connecticut elementary school—Sandy Hook in Newtown—and that there were casualties.
He left the platform and immediately went to the scene in Newtown, where 20 students and six teachers had died. Since that fateful day in his home state, Murphy has been one of Congress’ leading advocates in the fight for gun regulations.
Nearly a decade later, this last May 24, another gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and, with his high-powered assault weapon, killed 19 children and two teachers. That tragedy happened in former Republican Rep. Will Hurd’s district.
The two politicians may seem at different ends of the gun conversation spectrum (Murphy has an F rating from the National Rifle Association, while Hurd had an A when he left office in January 2021), but they shared the stage at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium on Tuesday night to engage in thoughtful, bipartisan dialogue to find common ground on solutions that will hopefully prevent future tragedies that their states and districts endured.
Tuesday’s event, which former CBS News correspondent Jacqueline Adams moderated, was a partnership between the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, the student group BridgeGW and the nonprofit Common Ground Committee.
Both politicians agreed that the U.S. public finally drew its line in the sand to say inaction is unacceptable after the Uvalde massacre. Just a month later, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, with Murphy being a key leader in its passage.
While the act was the first major gun control legislation in more than three decades despite unprecedented gun violence compared to other nations of similar GDP, Murphy told the capacity crowd of mostly GW students that this law finally showed some progress and a hopeful sign of what’s to come.
“I just think this is going to go down in history as one of the great social change movements in the history of this nation,” Murphy said.
Hurd, a former CIA clandestine officer who served three Congressional terms, said partisan rhetoric can’t get in the way of meaningful legislation on gun control.
“We need to stop retreating to our corners and arguing the same positions we’ve been arguing and start with what are things that we can agree on and figuring out how to address those things to build the political momentum that this legislation creates,” Hurd said.
Former Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX) spoke with GW students during a pre-event discussion. (William Atkins/GW Today)
GW was a fitting setting for Tuesday's discussion, as the university reaffirmed its commitment in the fight against gun violence when it announced its involvement in the 120 Initiative, which the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area introduced in July. It brings together administrative and faculty experts to address the epidemic.
GW President Mark S. Wrighton, who delivered opening remarks, challenged the university community to use its knowledge and convening power to make recommendations for action to reduce gun violence.
“I hope that together through all our efforts we will continue to make good progress and more rapid progress,” Wrighton said.
Part of that progress is for policymakers to find common ground, which Murphy and Hurd reached throughout the Tuesday event. They agreed that there was no conflict between protecting private legitimate gun ownership and regulation. Both mentioned that while the Second Amendment indeed protects the right of gun ownership, it should also be open to regulation so guns are not winding up in the hands of people with bad intentions.
They also agreed that the legal age to buy a gun should be 21 years old, and that arming more people—such as teachers—is not a viable solution.
GW students were engaged throughout the night, including a small group who met with Hurd during a pre-event discussion. Both Hurd and Murphy commented on the substance behind the student questions during the main conversation’s Q & A.
Sophomore Skyler Sieradzky, a political science and philosophy double major with a minor in peace studies, thought it was important to attend Tuesday’s event to see how people of different political backgrounds can come together to work on a public safety issue that has become very controversial.
“The only way that we can make a positive difference is if we work together, and by having people from both sides of the aisle giving us a positive model on how we can successfully work together I think is a really great way to have positive political discourse, which is what we need more of these days,” said Sieradzky, who is also the communications director at BridgeGW.
Murphy and Hurd both acknowledged the frustration the U.S. public has with partisan politics, especially the conversation around guns and specifically background checks to purchase them. The Senate has blocked measures on background checks in recent years despite, as both men eluded to, the overwhelming support from the public with polls that typically suggest up to 90% of Americans “strongly or somewhat” support the requirement.
Hurd suggested that because this issue creates contrast, it becomes fodder during election time. He challenged those attending to vote at their local levels and in their states’ primaries to ensure whoever is on the ballot represents the positions held by a majority of Americans.
“Model the behavior you want to see,” Hurd said to the student attendees. “We all have the capacity, and what I enjoy about being in places like [GW] is I get renewed and inspired.”