Tube Talk: Watching history unfold

This frame grab provided by C-SPAN shows Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. speaking on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 15, 2016, where he launched a filibuster demanding a vote on gun control measures. The move comes three days after people were killed in a mass shooting in Orlando. (Senate Television via AP)

By Paula Hendrickson

Last week, the unthinkable happened: I was engrossed by C-SPAN 2.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, tuned in to watch history happen live, on TV, as Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy launched a good old-fashioned American filibuster in order to get the United States Senate to add the topic of gun violence to its current agenda. This wasn’t Murphy’s first attempt to draw lawmakers’ attention to the issue – he also made an impassioned plea shortly after the December 2015 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre happened in his home state – but this was his most dramatic.

Most television news outlets were so busy covering the horrific story of the Orlando shootings that the filibuster barely made it into their broadcasts until it was nearly over. I learned about the filibuster because it was trending on social media. I was surprised by how captivated people were by the filibuster, even into its 14th hour. I was riveted, too.

Being accustomed to thinking our elected officials spend most of their time schmoozing with lobbyists to secure campaign contributions, it was refreshing to see Murphy,  supported by upwards of 40 of his colleagues, stand tall and refuse to cede the floor until his opposition agreed to allow votes on two proposed gun control measures.

Best of all, Murphy and his supporters used the entire filibuster to discuss gun violence and issues tied to the controversial subject. That stands in sharp contrast to other recent filibusters that were mostly a series of often off-topic ramblings designed not to get an issue before the Senate, but to block votes from taking place.

Once I finally found C-SPAN 2 and tuned into Wednesday night’s filibuster, I thought: This is just like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, only thanks to social media unlike Jimmy Stewart, Chris Murphy doesn’t need to filibuster more than a day before public support finally pours in. It also reminded me of Mellie’s filibuster on last fall’s mid-season finale of Scandal. Only Murphy’s filibuster played out in real time.

This was, quite literally, a living, breathing civics lesson. Live, on TV.

Sadly, it was also a bitter history lesson as Murphy’s colleagues stepped up to speak (allowing Murphy short breaks from speaking) and reminded us of the litany of mass shootings of the past decade or so. It is sobering to realize how inured we, as a culture, have become to gun violence. Some mass shootings – defined as shootings with at least three victims – barely make the news anymore. We should be ashamed.

The discussion on the floor wasn’t about taking guns away from law abiding citizens, or banning all guns. It was about the need for better background checks for people who want to buy guns, the closing the “private sales” loophole that allows people to buy assault weapons at gun shows or online without a background check, and banning people on the No Fly List from legally purchasing weapons.

Something clearly needs to be done to help prevent unstable people bent on destruction from getting assault weapons while still retaining the rights of law abiding citizens to own guns if they wish. Yet even after the Orlando massacre, the subject of gun violence wasn’t even on the Senate’s agenda. Senator Murphy’s bold stand caused individual Americans to call, tweet, and email their Senators to encourage them to address a very serious issue – and simultaneously gave C-SPAN 2 what must have been its highest ratings in years.

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