On the final episode of “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust,” host Garrett Graff examines the toll gun violence has taken on Gen Z, whose lives have been defined by school lockdowns and active shooter drills unimaginable to previous generations. 

This episode will be available on Wednesday, May 22.

Today’s twentysomethings came of age in the shadow of September 11 and the war on terror — but their 9/11 was the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, which killed six adults and 20 first-graders. As Gen Z reaches adulthood, they have reinvigorated the gun safety movement, helping to build a national effort to combat gun violence — which for the first time in decades appears to be making meaningful progress. 

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut takes us through the aftermath of Sandy Hook, and failed attempts to close the private gun sales loophole — an effort that finally bore fruit in 2022 with the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first federal gun reform to be enacted in nearly 30 years. 

Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust” is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX. Listen and follow on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Garrett Graff: A note for listeners: On and across this season, there are repeated mentions of guns, gun violence, and their collective toll on our society and our psyche. Please take care while you listen.

Garrett Graff: If you listened to season one of Long Shadow, you know that I’ve spent much of the last decade reporting and writing about 9/11. Today, more than a third of America is too young to remember that day, and I’ve been particularly interested in the generation raised in the shadow of that tragedy: children born in the late 90s and early 2000s, known today as Gen Z. Before demographers, researchers, and the media settled on that moniker, Gen Z was originally known as the Homelanders, a phrase that denoted how their childhoods were shaped by the post-9/11 era of homeland security and the “war on terror.”

[News clip: This just in. You are looking at obviously a very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Center and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers.]

Garrett Graff: Back in the fall of 2020, I set out to interview some of those kids — specifically children born on September 11, 2001, itself — about their childhoods, lives, dreams, fears, and aspirations, people like Lilly, a three-sport varsity athlete in high school who was starting as a communications major at the University of Rhode Island, and Dylan, a first-year computer science major at Virginia Tech. They were eligible that fall to vote for the first time in a presidential election, and I was curious about how they saw their country. It’s fair to say they’d experienced something of a raw deal in American history — coming of age not just amid the war on terror, but also living through the 2008 financial collapse and then graduating from high school right into the Covid pandemic. But across the hours of interviews I did that fall, I learned that for many of them the moment that had cast the biggest shadow on their childhoods was not 9/11. Their 9/11 — the moment that in their lives changed everything, their “where were you when?” moment — came on December 14, 2012, a few months after their 11th birthdays. It was the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. For Chloe, the biracial daughter of a Philippine immigrant and a California mom in Utah, it was the first big news event she remembers. Hillary, an aspiring EMT, went to school just 25 minutes away and remembers her school going into lockdown. Lilly’s school added fences and locked campus doors. Tawny, a bioscience student in Virginia Beach, said she often thought about the shooting while in school. She told me: “Every time I was in a classroom, I would always make sure I knew where my exits were, and I always had a plan for what I would do if someone came into the room posing a threat. My dad would sit me down, ‘Here’s what you’re gonna do if this happens,’ and we’d talk about all these different situations and how I would be safe.” Gen Z has come of age in the era of a different kind of war on terror — the war over guns. The reality is that since 9/11, jihadists have killed 107 people in the United States. During that same time, mass shootings killed more than 10 times that number. And from 2001 to 2022, firearms killed more than 775,000 Americans. The perpetrators of those mass shootings fit a clear profile: They are almost always men, angry, usually white, sometimes young, sometimes old. The truth is that this Gen Z — raised on the internet and often looked down on for their “fragility,” their political correctness, their obsession with inclusivity — has been forged in an age of school lockdowns and active shooter drills unimaginable to previous generations. Now, as they’ve reached their teens and twenties, they’ve reinvigorated the gun safety movement, helping to build a ubiquitous grassroots national effort to combat gun violence, a movement which for the first time in decades appears to be making meaningful progress, a movement that seems capable of drowning out the once dominating voice of America’s seemingly unstoppable gun lobby. I’m Garrett Graff, and from Long Lead, PRX, and Campside Media, in collaboration with The Trace, this is the season finale of Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust. Episode six: “Generation Lockdown.”

Garrett Graff: There have been more than 400 school shootings since Columbine in 1999, according to a tally by the Washington Post. In the days following a mass shooting, survivors and grieving families are usually met with an outpouring of sympathy and support from across the country. Often they’ll receive phone calls or messages from members of a growing network of gun violence survivors. People like Frank DeAngelis, or as you remember him, Mr. D. 

Frank DeAngelis: You know, I usually say, you know, uh, this is Frank DeAngelis, and I was the principal at Columbine High School. And I’m just here to help you whatever you need. And I said, you know, at times, this isn’t going to be a one-time phone call. I’m going to be there every step of the way as someone was there for me. 

Garrett Graff: After the shooting at Columbine, Mr. D had received a similar call himself, from the principal of a high school in Paducah, Kentucky, that had also experienced a mass shooting in 1997. It was a call that proved more useful than Mr. D could have imagined. Amid his grief and shock, he found he had lots of practical questions.

Frank DeAngelis: I said, “What did you do for your first graduation? What did you do for this?” And I can remember saying, “I’m hoping that I never have to make a phone call like Bill did to me.” And I said, I just joined a club in which no one wants to be a member.

Garrett Graff: For more than two decades since that call, Mr. D has tried to pay that kindness forward by traveling to meet with other survivors and offering any help he can give. He retired from his role as Columbine’s principal in 2014, fulfilling a promise to stay long enough to graduate every student in the community touched by the massacre. From there, the work with other survivors became his main focus: He helped co-found a program called the Principal Recovery Network in 2019.

Frank DeAngelis: Every year we get a chance to go up and meet with legislators to talk about school safety, but at the same time we reach out to these communities that have gone through it.

Garrett Graff: Like Columbine, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was another watershed moment for the country: twenty children and six adults killed at the school by a 20-year-old gunman with an AR-15. Sandy Phillips lost her daughter Jessi just five months earlier in Aurora, Colorado. She visited Newtown personally to meet with some of the parents.

Sandy Phillips: We were in a community center that they brought some of the families to and we didn’t have to be told who they were. You could tell just by looking at them the shock that they were in almost like a zombie walk, you know, Where are we? What are we doing? Just total shell shock. 

Garrett Graff: In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, advocates for gun reform and gun violence survivors — from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Aurora — hoped this would be the moment that might finally spur action from Congress. The moment where lawmakers might finally do more than tweet those familiar words, “thoughts and prayers.” How could it not be? Most of the victims at Sandy Hook were first-graders — six- and seven-year-olds, killed within minutes by a weapon of war. The teachers who died that day gave their lives trying to protect their kids. How could this not be the moment things changed? Overnight, more than 200,000 people signed an online petition calling for stricter gun regulations. The shootings in Aurora and Newtown — just months apart — had sparked a renewed focus on background check loopholes and the expired federal ban on so-called assault weapons. In response, President Obama promised to act.

[President Barack Obama: This week I called on Congress to take up and pass legislation that has the support of the majority of the American people, including banning the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips and making sure criminals cannot take advantage of legal loopholes to get their hands on a gun.]

Garrett Graff: And like in the 90s, the push for federal regulation sparked an immediate backlash from gun rights proponents, many of whom had already been convinced this day would come from the moment Barack Obama was elected. Here is Jen Mascia, my co-reporter on this season of Long Shadow.

Jennifer Mascia: There was a point where we would have a mass shooting in America and the country would wait with bated breath to see what the NRA was going to say. And it’s been a long time since that’s been true. But for a while, it very much was true. To the point where after Sandy Hook the next question other than how do we prevent this from happening again is What is the NRA going to say about this?

Garrett Graff: After a brief silence, what the NRA said days after the attack came as no surprise. 

[Wayne LaPierre: Since when did the gun automatically become a bad word. A gun in the hands of a secret service agent, protecting our president isn’t a bad word. A gun in the hands of a soldier protecting the United States of America isn’t a bad word. And when you hear your glass breaking at 3 AM, and you called 911, you won’t be able to pray hard enough for a gun in the hands of a good guy to get there fast enough to protect you.]

Garrett Graff: It was the catchphrase we heard in the last episode, one that NRA leaders had been workshopping for years. But in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, the words felt more hollow. The problem wasn’t the people. The problem was the guns. Few Americans felt that reaction more acutely than Chris Murphy. Murphy had spent six years as a congressman from Connecticut and just weeks earlier been elected as the state’s junior US Senator. He had heard about the shooting while he was at a train station, waiting to take his children into New York City to look at the Christmas decorations. He left his family to go into New York without him and headed directly for Newtown. Within hours, he was meeting grieving families, teachers, and devastated first responders who had seen horrors that they could never forget. That day in 2012 changed his career.

Senator Chris Murphy: I’m pretty embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t work on the issue of gun violence prior to Sandy Hook. When somebody would confront me on the issue of guns, I probably gave some answer that dodged the question, said that the problem wasn’t guns, the problem was the person firing the gun.

Garrett Graff: Murphy would be sworn into the Senate just weeks after the attack. He had campaigned on causes like education, environmental advocacy, and health care. But after Sandy Hook, he had a new item on his agenda. 

Sen. Chris Murphy: There’s no doubt that, you know, that day began the rest of my life.

Garrett Graff: But a week after he was sworn in, Murphy received another unexpected wake-up call. This time at a community center in Hartford, a city whose residents are mostly Black and Latino. He was met there by advocates and survivors who had long suffered because of gun violence in their city. 

Sen. Chris Murphy: And they were furious, furious. They said, listen, we understand everything that these families in Newtown are going through, but where the hell have you been? What have you been doing? What about all the black kids in Hartford that have been getting shot year after year?

Garrett Graff: These families had been fighting against gun violence for years and felt they’d been dismissed or worse, ignored. Murphy grew up just minutes away from Hartford in Wethersfield, Connecticut, where his mom had been a public school teacher. But he says this was the first time he realized what had been happening in his own backyard, when he was called out by these families, now his constituents. So when he went to work, Murphy wanted to represent all Connecticut communities impacted by gun violence on a daily basis.

[Sen. Chris Murphy: As quickly as I can get the debate to background checks is when we start agreeing.]

Garrett Graff: Murphy began advocating for a bill that would require background checks for firearms sales at gun shows, the same gun show loophole lawmakers like Rod Blagojevich had been trying to close since the 1990s. Now, it was an ambitious and humbling push coming from a freshman senator still learning how to get to the Senate floor in the Capitol.

Sen. Chris Murphy: It was just a ridiculous position to be in. I was literally introducing myself to my colleagues and then lobbying them on the most controversial thing they were going to vote on that year.

Garrett Graff: But not even the horror of first-graders gunned down at school was enough to spur Congress to protect Americans. The legislation was promptly watered down, and ultimately received only 54 out of the 60 votes necessary.

Sen. Chris Murphy: Uh, we failed — pretty badly. And what I realized was that it wasn’t that we were losing the argument or that our, our argument wasn’t good enough. It’s that we just lacked political power as a movement.

Garrett Graff: That failure to act after Sandy Hook disillusioned many gun violence survivors and gun regulation advocates. If even this did not prompt change, what would?

[Pres. Barack Obama: As I’ve said from the start, no single piece of legislation can stop every act of violence and evil. We learned that tragically just two days ago. But if action by Congress could have saved one person, one child, a few hundred, a few thousand — if it could have prevented those people from losing their lives to gun violence in the future while preserving our Second Amendment rights — we had an obligation to try.]

Garrett Graff: For years, it seemed like nothing would change, nothing would give. Guns would be a permanent uniquely American problem. Politicians would offer thoughts and prayers, but nothing more. But looking back now, more than a decade later, it’s clear that Sandy Hook did change the country. That, in ways that weren’t initially visible, that shooting marked the beginning of a new wave of activism, a rising gun safety movement — one that finally could organize and take on the powerful gun lobby that had dominated the debate for decades. The day after the shooting at Sandy Hook, a Facebook group was created that would soon grow into the grassroots organization Moms Demand Action. 

[News clip: A day of action across the country today as mothers demanded changes to our nation’s gun laws.]

Garrett Graff: Then, less than a month later, Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords founded an organization to combat gun violence — what would later become the Giffords Law Center. Giffords had herself survived a mass shooting in 2011. She’d been meeting with constituents in the parking lot of a supermarket when she was shot in the head.

[Gabby Giffords: January 8, 2011, changed my life forever. I founded a group called Giffords. We’re on a mission to end gun violence.]

Garrett Graff: Seventeen others were shot too, six of whom died, including a nine-year-old girl named Christina-Taylor Green, who had been born on September 11, 2001. In 2013, some of the parents of children killed in Newtown, founded the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation and the Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund. And notably, philanthropists like Michael Bloomberg, contributed significantly to the gun violence prevention cause. In 2013, Bloomberg combined his nonprofit Mayors Against Illegal Guns with Moms Demand Action to create a new nonprofit called Everytown for Gun Safety. That group Everytown eventually provided seed money to the nonprofit newsroom The Trace, which was created to cover gun violence and collaborated with us on this season. And Everytown is still a significant funder of the nonprofit newsroom. Bloomberg also dedicated $50 million to lobbying for gun regulations on the state and federal level. The goal at the time: grow its membership to more than 2.5 million Americans and beat the NRA. In 2013, Obama put forth a proposal for gun control. It was a list of executive actions and possible congressional legislation that included reinstating the federal ban on America’s favorite gun. the AR-15, a gun also seemingly favored by mass shooters. Altogether, these groups threatened for the first time since the 1990s to pose a formidable challenge to the gun lobby, particularly with the help of the White House and deeply committed allies in Congress, like Senator Chris Murphy.

Sen. Chris Murphy: We needed to grow a movement that eventually would be just as powerful as the NRA. And what we figured out, slowly but surely, after 2013 was, in fact, there was enormous political gain to be had by being really publicly out front in favor of things like universal background checks and assault weapons bans. And the reason is pretty simple: People want to know that you connect emotionally to the things that matter most to them. And there’s nothing that matters more to any family in America than the physical safety of their children.

Garrett Graff: As this new alliance built, Murphy found that much of his work was focused outside the Capitol: meeting with advocates, hosting community conversations, and trying to find common ground for reform. Then, in 2016, came another pivotal moment. 

[News clip: America is just now coming to grips with what unfolded here in the early morning hours here in Orlando — a massacre at a gay nightclub, and at the center of it all a lone gunman who, in the middle of that massacre, called 911 to pledge allegiance to ISIS.]

Garrett Graff: A gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting the country had ever seen. It was targeted and planned, and shockingly the shooter had once been on an FBI watchlist. For Murphy, it was a moment where he felt forced to step outside the normal routine and pattern of grief the country had come to expect following yet another massacre. 

Sen. Chris Murphy: Both parties would come out in the hours afterwards and declare their thoughts and prayers aligned with the victims. Democrats would create a kerfuffle about policy change. Republicans would say no. And within about 48 to 72 hours, everything would be back to normal. It had become a script by 2016. And I got on the phone with my staff that weekend that Pulse happened, and we walked through that script and the role that I was going to play in that script, and I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. I, I had to do something to change the script, to force people in the country and my colleagues to confront the cost of inaction.

Garrett Graff: So instead of following the script, Murphy and his colleagues — Senators Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal — came up with a plan: They would shut down the Senate by launching a filibuster.

[Sen. Chris Murphy: I live every single day with a memory of Sandy Hook. And I know this is inconvenient for the leadership and for colleagues on both sides of the aisle. I get that. I am, most of the time around here, a team player. But I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough and I just couldn’t bring myself to come back to the Senate this week and pretend like, this is just business as usual. We gotta do something different. We’ve got to find a way to come together. I don’t know how long this will take, but I’m gonna stand here and continue to hold the floor while we give time for our colleagues to try to figure out a path forward to recognize that without changes in this nation’s gun laws supported by the vast majority of Americans  that this slaughter will continue.]

Garrett Graff: The goal was to force a vote on two proposed amendments to an appropriations bill. The first would ban anyone on a government watchlist from purchasing firearms, and the second would expand background checks.

Sen. Chris Murphy: I remember texting my wife, and right before I went down to the floor “I think I’m about to make a giant mistake,” because I worried that I was going to be like a tree falling in the woods. You know, I was going to stand up on the floor and declare that I wasn’t giving it up until we had a vote on background checks, and nobody was going to care. But that’s not what happened.

Garrett Graff: Ultimately, 40 of Murphy’s colleagues would join him over the nearly 15-hour-long filibuster — one of the longest in U.S. history. The stand reverberated far beyond the Capitol and the real impact could be seen on Twitter as the hashtag “filibuster” trended and video clips of Murphy spread online. Thousands of supportive calls poured into Murphy’s office. And the filibuster appeared to provide a much-needed jolt to the gun safety movement. In the end, not surprisingly, both amendments failed — that was to be expected. But people sensed a change in the national dialogue. Perhaps the momentum was shifting. A week later, a group of House representatives inspired by the filibuster in the Senate held a sit-in that once again commanded the nation’s attention. With the support of Congressman John Lewis, the sit-in drew some 170 lawmakers.

Sen. Chris Murphy: And what I think happened between the filibuster and the sit-in, is that the movement, and just a whole bunch of regular people out there, realized that we didn’t have to be on defense all the time. We could go on offense.

Garrett Graff: That “offensive” approach really began to coalesce in 2018, after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students were killed and 17 others were injured. The students in Parkland had watched shooting after shooting trend in hashtags on social media. Now they themselves became the hashtag, and just as they were also reaching voting age. They were informed, politically engaged, and they were angry. Almost overnight, a group of student survivors from Parkland became some of the most vocal and visible activists of the modern gun safety movement.

[X González: And it’s time for Congress to listen. Our message is clear: No more silence, end gun violence! No more silence, end gun violence!]

Garrett Graff: They spoke out in interviews, they organized, they protested. They were featured on the cover of Time Magazine. One of the most prominent Parkland survivors, X González, gave a rousing speech at an anti-gun rally in Florida.

[X González: They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS! They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS! They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS! They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS! That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about. That we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS! If you agree, register to vote. Contact your local Congresspeople. Give them a piece of your mind.]

Garrett Graff: On March 14th, 2018, just a month after the shooting, nearly a million kids across the country, inspired by the survivors, walked out of their classrooms to protest the epidemic of school shootings. A 17-minute walkout for the 17 lives lost at Parkland. Then, 20 days later, they helped organize and lead the inaugural March for Our Lives — and more than 800,000 people attended the rally in Washington, D.C. An impressive organizing feat for a group of newly-committed activists who just six weeks earlier had been ordinary high school students. “Enough is enough,” they chanted.

[David Hogg: When politicians send their thoughts and prayers with no action, we say, No more! And to those politicians supported by the NRA that allow the continued slaughter of our children and our future, I say, Get your resumes ready. We will come together. We will get rid of these public servants that only serve the gun lobby. And we, will, save, lives.]

Garrett Graff: This is also when the movement started to expand further toward more bipartisan support, as Gen Z Republicans began to diverge from the party on the issue of guns. The New York Times reported that in 2018 Gun Safety lobbying groups had for the first time outspent the NRA in the midterm elections. In eight close congressional contests, Democrats emphasized gun reform while running against Republican incumbents with an “A” rating from the NRA — and in all eight races, the Democrat won.

Sen. Chris Murphy: Once Democrats started really leading on the issue of guns, and this really started to happen in 2017 and 2018, we started winning all sorts of unexpected races, um, including eventually, you know, a place like Georgia. And that was, you know, I think what I learned was that the conventional wisdom on guns had just been wrong. This has now become one of the few litmus test issues inside the Democratic Party. There is no way you can win a serious contest to be a Democratic nominee for anything, unless you are for universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. That is brand new in this country, and brand new to democratic politics, and I’m fascinated by how quickly that conventional wisdom has changed.

Garrett Graff: In 2018, at long last, it seemed the nation’s sense of what was reasonable when it came to gun rights was changing. After decades of watching the Second Amendment move to the fore of American life, as the country weighed the question of individual rights and community safety, perhaps America didn’t have to live like this forever. More after the break.

Garrett Graff: In 2022, the youngest survivors of Parkland graduated from high school and the oldest graduated college. It was then, four years after their high school shooting, after countless other shootings, that their hopes for change finally came to fruition. Congress finally passed the first major federal gun reform bill in nearly 30 years — the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. But it only happened after yet another tragedy —the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that spring. 

[News clip: Very, very sad news coming out there in Texas right now, as all thoughts and prayers are for these families and friends of the victims right now. We contintue to await for an update from police officials there at the scene.]

Garrett Graff: Like at Sandy Hook, most of the Uvalde victims wereyoung children — just 10 years old. Over the nearly-quarter century since Columbine, America had weathered all too many mass shootings — many of the deadliest we have not even mentioned in this podcast: a Las Vegas music concert, a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a workplace shooting in San Bernardino, a Walmart in El Paso. America had seemingly gotten used to these tragedies. But it quickly became clear in 2022 that Uvalde was different. The story that emerged about the police response was not only shocking but, for many, unconscionable. Some of the first officers who arrived on the scene at Robb Elementary entered the school right away, but then retreated after they were fired upon. And instead of going back in, they waited. And waited. They waited for officers with more equipment to arrive. One mother, confounded by their inaction, actually hopped a fence and ran into the school herself to help her sons escape before police did.

[Uvalde parent: Nothing was being done. If anything, they were being more aggressive on us parents that were willing to go in there. And, like I was telling one of the officers, “I don’t need your protection. If anything, I need you to go in there with me to go protect my kids.”]

Garrett Graff: Altogether, more than 370 law enforcement officers responded to the attack — including the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Marshals, Texas State Troopers, local police, even the school district’s own police force. But they all held back. Hundreds of officers. It took law enforcement officers 77 minutes to confront and kill the shooter. By the end, 19 fourth-graders and two teachers were dead. Something had clearly gone terribly wrong. Was it a miscommunication? A failure of leadership? A lack of training? Yes — but there was also more. Soon, some of the officers would admit that they hadn’t entered the classroom with the gunman for a much simpler reason: They were scared of his gun, an AR-15. “A battle rifle,” one officer called it. Later, the official report from the Department of Justice found one critical error at the heart of the failed response: Law enforcement in Uvalde had followed protocol for a barricade or hostage situation, the same mistake made at Columbine High School more than two decades ago. They should have followed the active shooter protocols, which were changed drastically since 1999. When facing a barricaded suspect or a hostage situation, negotiation is sometimes possible. But you can’t negotiate with a mass shooter who aims primarily to kill. It wasn’t the first time that police had failed to stop a school shooting. Famously, the school resource officer at Parkland had also failed to engage the gunman there. But Uvalde was a moment that seemed to subvert so much of the NRA’s longtime rhetoric — the “good guys with guns,” hundreds of them, had only managed to save themselves. The community and national outrage was immediate. One of the teachers — who lost all 11 of his students in the shooting, and was himself wounded three times — called law enforcement “cowards.”

[Interviewer: Did you feel abandoned in that moment by police, by the people who were supposed to protect you?]

[Uvalde teacher: Absolutely. After everything, I get more angry because you have a bulletproof vest. I had nothing. I had nothing. You’re supposed to protect and serve. There is no excuse for their actions, and I will never forgive them. I will never forget them.]

Garrett Graff: President Biden spoke to the country in a national address. He said that other countries have “mental health problems” and “domestic disputes”., and “people who are lost.” But he said these kinds of mass shootings never happen with the kind of frequency they happen in America.

[Pres. Joe Biden:  Why? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?]

Garrett Graff: It was enough to tip the scales. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, or BSCA, passed in June 2022, just one month after the massacre at Uvalde, demonstrating just how quickly Congress can act when motivated. It was a bittersweet moment for the gun safety movement.

Sen. Chris Murphy: It happened for a number of reasons, but again, I think the primary one is that during those 30 days, the anti-gun violence movement made more noise than the gun lobby did.

Garrett Graff: There were five major changes in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. It provided funding to implement so-called “red flag” laws and enhanced background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21. It expanded the meaning of “gun dealer” to include smaller dealers, not just people who own a gun store. It narrowed the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” preventing more domestic abusers from having a gun. And it allocated more than $13 billion to support mental health programs, improve school safety models, and fund violence interruption programs in urban areas. After more than decade working on the gun issue, Murphy finally had some good news to share. There was only one thing left to do. Alone in his Hartford home the night before the bill was going to pass, Murphy picked up the phone. Here is Murphy describing that night to The Trace’s managing director, James Burnett, at the Texas Tribune Festival in 2023.

[Sen. Chris Murphy: I sat down at my big dining room table with the list of the families from Sandy Hook, and the families from Bridgeport, and the families from Columbine, and I just started calling them to tell them what was about to happen the next day, right? That first time in 30 years we were going to pass something to honor the loss of your child.]

Garrett Graff: He heard plenty of anger: Why did it take so long? Why wasn’t Sandy Hook or Aurora or Virginia Tech the wake up call? But he also heard gratitude and a determination to continue the fight.

[Sen. Chris Murphy: You know, there’s a lot of hurt being a part of this movement. But I think there’s going to be a lot more days like that, and that’s what sorta keeps me coming back to this.]

Garrett Graff: Murphy says there’s been a reduction in gun violence since the bill’s passing. According to preliminary data, urban homicides dropped nationally by as much as 12 percent from 2022 to 2023. Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what factors have caused the reduction, Murphy feels certain the bill has had more than a little impact.

Sen. Chris Murphy: It’s just continued proof that when you change the laws, good things happen, more people are alive. I think it often takes some time for immovable political infrastructure to catch up with public opinion, but one way or another, we are passing the laws that will be necessary to get a dramatic decline in gun violence in this country. I am 100 percent confident that we are passing universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons in the next five to 100 years. I am 100 percent confident of that. I think this country has made up its mind. It’s not a question of if it’s a question of when.

Garrett Graff: But even as gun reform progressed, gun rights continue to expand as well. In 2022, the same year Congress passed the BSCA, the country saw another landmark moment, the most important Supreme Court ruling on gun rights since Heller in 2008. The case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen overturned New York state’s concealed carry permitting law, and set off a string of challenges to similar laws across the country. And for the first time, it established the right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. So for many gun safety proponents, it’s clear a lot of work still lies ahead. The BSCA was just the start. They want to go even further by repealing a number of pro-gun federal laws passed in recent decades. At the top of the list for many, is changing laws like PLCAA. Sandy Phillips believes repealing PLCAA is the most important change the country can make.

Sandy Phillips: We personally want it repealed because once you return the ability for people who have been affected by gun violence to sue the gun industry and make them police themselves, force them into policing themselves, you’ll see a reduction in gun violence. They don’t want to pay, ya know?

Garrett Graff: Cameron McWhirter, co-author of American Gun, agrees that the potential impact of repealing PLCAA cannot be overstated.

Cameron McWhirter: If there was ever a political situation in which PLCAA was rolled back, they would stop making AR-15s tomorrow because it would just be legally impossible. And, and all, every other gun would be really problematic.

Garrett Graff: Eight states have passed laws that circumvent PLCAA by regulating the way guns are marketed. And multiple families have won settlements against gunmakers that way. In 2014, nine families of Sandy Hook victims filed a lawsuit against Remington, the manufacturer of the AR-15 used in the attack. The plaintiffs argued that the company had violated Connecticut consumer protection laws by creating an ad campaign that targeted troubled young men, like the one who killed their children. Though Remington didn’t admit any wrongdoing, the company settled with those families for $73 million, the largest payout by a gun maker to mass shooting victims. The nation’s oldest gunmaker founded in 1816, filed for bankruptcy in 2020.

[Father of shooting victim: Today’s an example of our system working. An example of the process that, while lengthy, it makes it clear to the manufacturers of these products that if you want to sell them, you must do it in a reasonable and responsible way. And it makes clear to the banks who fund them and the insurance companies who cover them that there will be a steep price for irresponsible behavior. And we’re here because we want to make sure that another father and mother don’t have to stand here someday.]

Garrett Graff: Everytown for Gun Safety analyzed gun crime data from 31 police departments. And its researchers found that in 2021, more than 50 percent of crime guns recovered by police were produced by just four major gun manufacturers: Glock, Smith & Wesson, Taurus, and Ruger. But for the most part, gun manufacturers aren’t often held liable for the day-to-day toll of gun violence on American society. And there’s another change that gun safety proponents believe would have a massive impact on the public’s understanding of the links between the gun makers and the violence on our streets — repealing the Tiahrt Amendment. Though news reports often mention the kind of gun used in a high-profile shooting, they often don’t name the manufacturer — and that’s not an accident. The 2003 amendment — named for Kansas representative Todd Tiarht —  prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the ATF, from releasing information about guns linked to a criminal investigation directly to the public. Once Tiahrt was passed, gun trace data could only be shared directly with law enforcement. It aimed to preserve the integrity of criminal investigations and to protect a firearms dealer from being blamed, or worse, potentially sued if their product was used in a crime. The Tiahrt amendment also required the FBI to destroy successful background check records within 24 hours. And the process for tracing a gun used in a crime back to its original owner is nothing short of Kafkaesque.

Jennifer Mascia: That’s probably a surprise for most people who watch CSI or Law and Order and somebody’s just typing something into a computer terminal and boom, the gun trace comes up. That’s not how things work in real life at all. When it comes to guns, everything is stuck in the 1970s. 

Garrett Graff: Jen walked us through the way gun tracing works in real life. So let’s say a police officer finds a gun at the scene of a crime or in connection to a criminal investigation. In order to track down the owner of that gun and locate a potential suspect, they first call the ATF and provide a serial number. Then …

Jennifer Mascia: An ATF investigator picks up the phone and calls the serial number into the gun manufacturer. The gun manufacturer furnishes the name of the wholesaler. 

Garrett Graff: Like with most consumer products, gun manufacturers don’t sell directly to the public. They sell to a wholesaler who then sells inventory to a gun dealer, who then sells it to a civilian customer.

Jennifer Mascia: So the ATF investigator calls the wholesaler and the wholesaler will furnish the name of the gun store it was sold to. So the ATF investigator calls the gun store and gives the gun store the serial number. The gun store takes out its notebook, called a “bound book,” or Excel file, sometimes, where they’ve recorded the sales information.

Garrett Graff: But we’re not done just yet. The gun seller then matches the serial number to the corresponding background check form, which is kept on file by the dealer on site. 

Jennifer Mascia: And it’s paper, mostly. It’s paper and pencil.

Garrett Graff: Then, finally, the ATF investigator gets a name that he can share with the police officer who made the original request. 

Jennifer Mascia: That’s a process that should take three seconds typing something into a computer — and it can take up to two weeks.

Garrett Graff: And there’s another possibility: What if the dealer that sold the weapon is no longer in business? In that case, all of the dealer’s old records are handed over to the ATF. 

Jennifer Mascia: In West Virginia, there is a facility that has more than 900 million paper records. They fill 40 cargo shipping containers with 2,000 boxes each of paper that the ATF has to find a way to go through. And they can’t just catalog this in a digital file anywhere. So when the inventories come in, the ATF will take a picture of every page. They can’t search for keywords. The Tracing Center staffers have created a system for physically locating the right record. It’s almost like the Dewey Decimal System on steroids. And that takes time. And you see where gun rights are starting to hamper law enforcement.

Garrett Graff: And all of that, mind you, is the best-case scenario. If the gun was purchased through a private sale, there might not be any paperwork at all. 

Jennifer Mascia: So if you have somebody who’s committing multiple crimes, they’re free to commit more crimes with that gun while somebody’s going through the trace. 

Garrett Graff: Repealing the Tiahrt Amendment would at the very least bring the ATF’s gun tracing process into the 21st century. And here’s why all of this is important: Gun trace information could not only help solve more crimes faster, it could also provide important insights into who commits gun violence and how they access firearms, which could tell us a lot about the effectiveness of current gun regulations. Because the reality is there’s still a lot we don’t know about how to regulate this industry and how to best effectively reduce gun violence. Frankly, the ATF is a dark box. Gun sales records and inventories are not tracked by the FBI. We don’t even know precisely how many Americans own guns or how many carry concealed weapons. Or how many guns are lost or stolen each year. And in a country where we must weigh the rights of some Americans against the safety of others, data like this could have a major impact and save thousands of lives. But, as slow and uncertain as it seems progress on gun reform may be, America has, perhaps, turned a corner. For one thing, the NRA of yesteryear is no more. The organization that for so long had dominated the gun debate, whose leaders like Harlon Carter and Marion Hammer fundamentally altered daily life in America over the last four decades, is today a shadow of its former self. The Attorney General of New York filed a civil lawsuit against the NRA in 2020 over corruption allegations and accused NRA leaders of using the organization’s funds as a “personal piggy bank” for lavish private expenses — from exorbitant salaries and private jets to hunting excursions and helicopter rides to NASCAR races. A Manhattan jury found three top NRA executives liable, including Wayne LaPierre. He was found to have caused the NRA $5.4 million in damages and must personally pay back over $4 million. Most importantly, its stranglehold on national politics is over. In fact, today, gun safety proposals and reform efforts are increasingly bipartisan, and many proposals have broad public support. Robert Spitzer, who we heard from earlier in the series, has written five books about gun regulation, and he told us he’s noticed a meaningful cultural and political shift on the issue in recent years.

Robert Spitzer: I do think that there is reason for some cautious optimism. We know that the public is paying more attention to this issue than it did decades ago. When the public is paying attention, it’s more likely to see the public will projected into the actions of government. And there has been more and more research and evidence to show exactly what policy strategies are effective in reducing gun violence. People who shrug their shoulders and say, well, it doesn’t matter what the law says, don’t know anything about law or government. Gun laws do make a difference. There’s lots of evidence that show that it does. 

Garrett Graff: Another major turning point came with Congress’s recent clarification that the Dickey Amendment was never intended to prohibit federal funding for research on gun violence. We talked about this last episode. In recent years, for the first time in two decades, public health researchers are beginning to look at data-informed solutions for what works in reducing gun violence. For example, research shows that states with universal background checks have reduced rates of firearm homicide. And The Trace obtained FBI data that shows that the BSCA’s enhanced background checks have successfully flagged more young gun buyers who pose a risk of harm and blocked them from purchasing firearms. We now know that temporary transfer laws, which temporarily restrict firearm access for people who pose a harm to themselves or others, lead to a reductions in state suicide rates. And laws that require secure firearm storage, and penalize noncompliance, reduce firearm deaths. And Spitzer says there are proven strategies, besides new federal or state laws, that could help reduce gun deaths too. Even something as simple as a PSA.

Robert Spitzer: When is the first, last, or anytime you ever saw a public service announcement during the Superbowl telling people that if they own a gun, they need to store it properly and have a gun lock and make sure the kids don’t have access to it. Um, there is no such thing, in our national media. That wouldn’t involve a new law, but we know that public service campaigns make a difference, like wearing your seatbelt or don’t smoke or drink responsibly. And I think the, the door is open to have that kind of non-legislative solution be one of many things that could be done to address the gun problem.

Garrett Graff: It’s clear that there’s not one solution or simple fix to gun violence in the country. What matters, though, is that we seem, for the first time in decades, to be implementing any solutions at all. Today, to many who follow the issue, things feel different.

Jennifer Mascia: The one thing that gives me hope are the kids growing up today who look around and say, How the hell did this happen? There’s a whole generation that’s come up after Columbine that is saying, This is not sustainable. This is not a way to live.

Garrett Graff: Those kids who grew up with school lockdowns and active shooter drills are adults now, and they’ve grown into some of the country’s leading gun safety advocates, making sure that guns stay at the forefront of the American political debate. March for Our Lives has continued and expanded. The organization now has a youth-led judicial advocacy group, and has helped push forward more than 300 new gun safety laws. Looking to the future, they hope to push for a national gun buy-back program, a national gun licensing and registry system, and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Beyond the specifics of legislation, though, that new generation is showing that you can be a national political leader on a platform of gun safety.

[Maxwell Frost: My name is Maxwell Alejandro Frost. I’m a survivor of gun violence and organizer, former and inaugural national organizing director for March for Our Lives. And now I’m running for Congress here in Orlando. Thank you, thank you.  I’m here to tell you that a better world is possible. I’m here to tell you that we have to use every tool in our toolbox to get a world where gun violence doesn’t exists. So yes, that means march. Yes, that means protest. That means vote. And we need you all to vote!]

Garrett Graff: Maxwell Frost first became interested in gun violence and politics after Sandy Hook. In 2023, at 25 years old, he became the youngest member of Congress and the first Gen Z Congressman. He beat a state senator and two US representatives in the primary — in Florida — once the nation’s test kitchen for some of the most pervasive pro-gun laws. During his time in Congress, he’s introduced a number of gun bills and pushed for a federal office of gun violence prevention, which President Biden then created in 2023. And it’s not just in Florida. In 2023, two Democratic Tennessee representatives, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled for violating House rules after they joined thousands of protestors at the state capitol calling for stricter gun regulations. The protests came days after a school shooting at Covenant School in Nashville. Justin Jones has called their defiance “good trouble,” sighting the late civil rights icon John Lewis. Later that year, the two lawmakers were returned to the GOP-dominated state house in a special election. It was a major coup.

[Justin Pearson: I want to thank you all, not for what you did, but for awakening the people of this state, particularly the young people. Thank you for reminding the people that the struggle for justice is fought and won in every generation.]

Garrett Graff: Frost, Jones, and Pearson, who are all men of color in their late 20s, represent a new generation of leaders recognizing that justice, equality, and freedom for all in this country have been hard won, and that maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to sacrifice safety in order to enjoy liberty. It’s hard not to see in their successful stance a larger shift in our national dialogue over guns.

Garrett Graff:  When Long Lead editor John Patrick Pullen and I started Long Shadow, we wanted to try to use history to explain the America of today, to fill in the gaps and chapters of the past that delivered us to now. I wanted to tackle this issue this season because guns, more than any other issue in American life, confound me. It’s among the most complex story of our time. It’s a business story. A political story. A public health story. A criminal justice story. A legal story. A story about race, gender, and culture. A story about our history. Most of all, it’s a story that reaches to the heart and soul of who we are as a country and what we value. About how we balance the 225-year-old document that founded our country with the complexities of modern life. About how we interpret and balance and protect whose freedoms and whose liberties. About who gets to define safety and who we count on to protect us. I wanted to understand how we got to the point where we are. Guns have been a part of American life since our founding, but it felt to me that something had changed in our culture and our politics over the course of my lifetime. I grew up around guns and hunting, but never knew anyone who felt that they needed an AR-15 and a 30-round magazine to hunt deer or ducks. How, in this century, did a black plastic rifle come to symbolize a particular specific breed of masculinity? How did a certain strain of American individualists come to believe that owning an AR-15 was what was going to let them resist a tyrannical government? As I explained in the opening episode, I graduated high school just weeks after Columbine; I never did an active shooter drill as a kid. But now my children will grow up in an era where they will do their first active shooter drill in school before they learn to read. How did this happen? How did we let that happen? How and why are we a country with 400 million guns that somehow feels like we need more guns, where we’re still purchasing more than a million new guns every month? The answer, as we’ve traced over the last six episodes was that these changes, and more, occurred in the only way that politics ever change — because a small group of dedicated, focused activists wanted these changes. There is no better chronicler today of political power in American history, its use and abuse, than Robert Caro, the author of multiple door-stop volumes on LBJ and in his definitive 1974 classic, The Power Broker, about the rise of fall of New York’s great builder, Robert Moses. In that book, Caro quotes Moses explaining how power and change converge. “Things happen when there are leaders available, ready and eager to take advantage of the logic of events. Even then the whole result is accomplished only by a series of limited objectives, over a surprisingly long period of years.” This is, as it turns out, exactly what happened in the story of guns and modern America. America’s relationship with guns changed because the NRA, its leaders, and allies led a strategic campaign, across nearly 50 years, to convince Americans to be afraid. That in modern life, where we’ve made so much societal progress reducing everyday risks — mandating seat belts and airbags in cars, helmets for bikers, banning smoking sections in restaurants, where schools have nut-free classrooms to protect against allergies, and where we’ve even removed pools at many municipal pools because the liability concerns are too great — that somehow, nearly 50,000 Americans dead every year is a price we’re willing to pay for the right to own and carry guns. That somehow, in our modern, advanced society, that the reasonable expectation for daily life in America should be as many people as possible carrying handguns or rifles in as many places as possible. Carrying guns in places that wouldn’t have even been allowed in the Wild West. That change in our culture and our politics was made possible over two generations through small tweaks in public policy. It’s an important lesson in how power works and how American culture changes, about the ties between politics and how it trickles down into our daily life. I’ll be honest — I didn’t start reporting this with a lot of hope. We all know the Onion joke that always circulates online after every mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Reporting on this subject has been harder and more emotional than just about anything I’ve ever done in my career. And I say that as someone who has written books on 9/11 and the killing grounds of Omaha Beach on D-Day. I frankly don’t know how my co-reporter Jen Mascia has covered this subject for as long as she has. Over the course of this season, wearing my historian and journalist hat, I’ve endeavored to chronicle this tug-of-war as it’s happened. But as a citizen, person, and as a father, I can’t set aside my feelings that America and Americans shouldn’t have to live in fear. And as I listened to the stories of people like Sandy Phillips and Mr. D, I found a story that I hadn’t anticipated. I found a story of hope. I discovered there are lots of Americans on both sides of this issue who believe that change is not only possible, but imminent. As the NRA built its power and changed America, a new generation of leaders has also emerged after violence touched their own lives. From Sarah Brady to Gabby Giffords to Sandy Phillips to Mr. D to Chris Murphy to Gen Z. There is perhaps no better illustration of that small, piece-by-piece change — those tiny tweaks in public policy that are the only way that change happens in a large complex society — than that in the midst of recording this podcast, the Biden administration did something that three generations of lawmakers and presidents had failed to do. The Justice Department implemented new rules aiming to close the gun show loophole once and for all. The gun show loophole that had allowed the shooters at Columbine to purchase their guns a quarter century ago. The gun show loophole that Rod Blagojevich and so many others had tried and failed to close. The new rules that require anyone who sells firearms at gun shows, flea markets, or online to register for a license and to conduct a background check for every sale. It was a change made possible because the BSCA had expanded the definition of a gun dealer two years earlier. The change is significant, both in terms of closing a meaningful loophole in gun sales, but more so because of what it represents — a step toward progress. At long last, America is trying to fix the system. And it’s indicative of something else: about how, amid great tragedy, hope for a better tomorrow can persist. 

Frank DeAngelis: A lot of times people will ask me, they’ll say, “Frank, you know, You’ve been retired for 10 years. You continue to reach out and help, but these shootings continue.” And my response is “But how many have been stopped because of things we’re doing differently?” And so we can’t ever give up hope.

Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX.

This series is hosted and reported by me, Garrett Graff. It was created by myself and executive producer John Patrick Pullen, of Long Lead.

Jennifer Mascia of The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom that covers guns in America, is my co-reporter and a contributing producer for this season.

The show is written by Emily Martinez. Aleah Papes is the associate producer and a contributing writer as well. Matthew Shaer and Emily Martinez also served as executive producers on this season.

Our theme song was composed by Netta Hadari. Sound design by Claire Mullen. Additional engineering by Yi-Wen Lai-Tremewan. Music by Blue Dot Sessions and APM. This episode was recorded by Joe Egan at Egan Media Productions in Colchester, Vermont, and Josh Millman at Digital One in Portland, Oregon.

This episode was fact-checked by Sarah Baum, Miranda Kaplan, Aleah Papes, and Emily Barone. Audience development by Heather Muse. Cover art by Long Lead’s creative director, Sarah Rogers. Special thanks to Lindsey Kilbride, Ashleyanne Krigbaum, and Jennifer Bassett who consulted on the podcast.

Special thanks to Adam Winkler and Alain Stephen,s who helped us understand the nation’s complex history with firearms. Adam’s book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, and Alain’s own podcast, The Gun Machine, are great resources if you want to dive deeper into this subject.

Stay up to date on this podcast and learn more about Long Lead’s award-winning journalism by subscribing to our newsletter, at LongLead.com.

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Thanks for listening.