Review: The Violence Inside Us

The Violence Inside Us, Chris Murphy. New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: A Connecticut Senator describes his own awakening to the scourge of gun violence after Newtown, and explores the causes and remedies for this uniquely American problem.

December 14, 2012 changed the course of newly minted Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy’s life. He was with his family about to catch the train to New York City when his aide called with the news of the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook. He made it to the scene waiting with the parents not reunited with their children. Their tragedy, and all the funerals, changed Murphy’s life, and gave him the greater purpose he had lacked, despite all his political success.

Another tragedy, one of which he learned later, but which had occurred two months earlier, while he was running for office, in nearby north Hartford, revealed the other side of gun violence. Young Shane Oliver, son of Pastor Sam Saylor. Shane was a promising young man, making a living repairing and flipping cars until a sale went bad and ended with Shane bleeding out in the street in his mother Janet’s arms. Sam became bitter. He’d buried other young men, but this was different. Janet went to a dark place. The couple came to Chris’s attention when Janet fought with a family member of the shooter during his arraignment.

And so began a journey of learning why so many mostly young men were dying on our nation’s streets, and what was behind mass shootings. It was a journey that took him into the roots of violence within us, into the biology of human violence, from brain structures to opposable thumbs, and why some particularly have a propensity for violence.

While violence is a human condition, the incidence of gun violence in the U.S. sets us apart from the world. Murphy looked both at mass shootings that continued to capture the headlines and empty nostrums of “thoughts and prayers” and the violence we ignore–the violence in our cities. He brings to light the more hidden violence of suicide, in which attempts end with death at far greater frequencies than by any other means. Sadly, the life that many guns are most likely to take are the lives of their owners, especially men in rural areas and others who are isolated.

He uncovers the fatal alignment of the arms industry and the National Rifle Association. He describes the resistance to common sense measures like universal background checks, extended to gun shows, that would make guns available to legitimate gun enthusiasts and others who have a legitimate need for them, while keeping it out of the hands of many who would do harm to self or others. He also tells the story of growing groups of mothers, of youth, and even some gun shops whose sales were used to terrible ends. He shows the interesting connection between reducing gun violence and criminal justice reform and other systemic interventions including President Bush’s PEPFAR program in Africa that not only reduced AIDS mortality rates, but also gun violence,

He ends with an account of his filibuster effort, a rarely used and seldom effective measure, to bring a background check bill to a vote. His effort failed, but he left his hearers and the readers a story of someone at Sandy Hook who found something different than violence within–something he believes we all need to find to reduce this terrible scourge.

Murphy offers a moving narrative. Although he upholds the right to own guns, I don’t think he will convince the hard core that he isn’t after their guns. I don’t think all the stories, statistics, reasons and proposals will do that. The question is whether it will encourage hope and action with many who have stayed out of the fray. Will it persuade those in the middle, who are tired of the polarities that a both/and solution is possible–one that keeps guns out of the hands of many who would use them for lethal purposes while allowing law abiding citizens to own them. I also wonder if Murphy and his like will have the staying power of a Wilberforce to pursue this effort even if it takes a life time. I think that is what it will take.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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