The Surprising Voice Missing From Gun-Control Talks

Mark Kelly made his name advocating for new gun laws after his wife was shot, but he didn’t play a central role in the big Senate compromise that passed last night.

A black-and-white profile photograph of Senator Mark Kelly
Stefani Reynolds / AFP / Getty

Of the 100 members of the United States Senate, none has a more intimate understanding of gun violence than Mark Kelly. Arizona’s junior senator is a Gulf War veteran and a retired astronaut. But if any single fact best explains Kelly’s election to the Senate as a Democrat in 2020, it’s that he is married to Gabby Giffords, the former representative who in 2011 was shot and severely wounded while she held a constituent event in Tucson.

After his wife’s shooting, Kelly soon became one of the nation’s most prominent advocates for gun-safety legislation, founding with her a political group named in her honor and devoted to the cause. His victorious 2020 campaign to fill the remainder of the late Senator John McCain’s term gave Kelly a far more powerful platform to shape federal gun laws. Yet as Congress prepares to enact the most significant gun-control bill in more than 25 years, Kelly is standing only at the periphery of the action. He was one of 20 senators who quickly endorsed the bipartisan framework that became the basis for legislation, but he did not play a major role in its formation and did not serve as a key negotiator. Instead, the leading Democrats behind the bill were Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Kelly’s Arizona colleague, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who has forged close ties with Republicans in part because of her willingness to buck her own party.

Kelly’s absence from the formal talks is a surprise, especially considering that he is running this fall for a full Senate term in a race that could determine whether Democrats maintain control of the chamber. “I would think this would be a great issue for him,” Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Republican consultant in Arizona, told me. Although Arizona has some of the nation’s most permissive gun laws, Coughlin said that the incremental changes in the Senate compromise—including an expansion of background checks for young adults and federal funding to implement red-flag laws—were likely to be popular with voters and offered Kelly an opportunity to “put Republicans on the defensive.” “There’s significant pluralities of voters across party lines that would support the bill,” Coughlin said.

Kelly has been far from silent on guns in the aftermath of the massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, that prompted the latest push for new legislation. After the Uvalde shooting, he issued a statement renewing his call for “commonsense reforms” to reduce gun violence. With reporters in the Capitol, he was much saltier: “It’s fucking nuts not to do anything about this.” Yet over the past month, Kelly has given no major speeches or press conferences on the topic. His office declined multiple requests for an interview, first saying that he was focused on speaking to local reporters and then that he was too busy working on a defense bill. “Senator Kelly worked with both Republicans and Democrats to shape the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which will make our communities safer while protecting Arizonans’ Second Amendment rights,” Sarah Guggenheimer, a Kelly spokesperson, said in an email. The senator, she added, “knows how to do more than one thing at a time, in this case, working to lower costs and get our economy back on track while also working to curb gun violence.”

When I asked Murphy, a lead sponsor of the new bill, why it was Sinema and not Kelly who took a leading role in the negotiations, he replied: “I don’t think I have the answer to that.” Democratic operatives who have watched Kelly closely in Arizona told me that they were less surprised to see him take a low profile during the talks. Polls have consistently shown strong backing for the types of measures that Kelly supports and that are encompassed in the Senate legislation. And although recent election data have cast doubt on the popularity of those proposals, these operatives say that the distance that Kelly has kept from the gun-control talks in Washington is not due to a political calculation that the agreement would hurt his reelection chances. Rather, they suspect that other factors are at play.

One is that because Sinema has more seniority than Kelly in the Senate, he would likely defer to her as a negotiator, particularly given her deeper relationships with Republicans needed for a deal. (Aides to Kelly said that he had kept in touch with fellow senators throughout the talks but noted that, despite his years of advocacy outside Congress, most of the other negotiators had more experience navigating the issue within the thorny political dynamics of the Senate.)

A more delicate explanation is that Kelly’s presence at the bargaining table during an election year might have hurt the chances for an agreement more than they would have helped.

None of the four main negotiators—Murphy, Sinema, and Republican Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina—is up for reelection this year; nor are most of the 20 senators who initially endorsed the deal. Democrats believe that Republicans would have been more reluctant to sign on if they saw the negotiation as an effort to boost Kelly, a top GOP target this fall.

“I think probably he made the decision, and maybe the negotiators did too, to not inject anything into this that might derail the conversation or get people sidetracked on other things,” Matt Grodsky, a Democratic consultant and former communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party, told me. He noted that a documentary featuring Kelly and Giffords is due out soon. “There’s probably a celebrity component to that,” Grodsky said. The film, Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, is set for release in theaters next month and will air on CNN later this year.

Kelly’s arm’s-length approach to gun control is also consistent with how he’s handled the issue since he became a politician, according to Democrats who have worked with him. Despite his biography and experience, he deliberately did not make the issue a centerpiece of his 2020 campaign, nor has he made it a signature issue as a senator. He’s made more national headlines breaking with the Biden administration on southern-border policy and touting legislation to ban members of Congress from trading stocks than he has in championing gun control.

During the 2020 campaign, Kelly and his advisers reasoned that voters were already well aware of where he stood on gun violence, Chase Hardin, a former Kelly aide, told me, so they decided to focus instead on economic issues, like job creation and lowering prescription-drug costs, where his views were less widely known. On guns, Hardin said, “he almost didn’t have to say anything.”

Republicans tried to attack Kelly on guns during the final weeks of the campaign, with then-Senator Martha McSally accusing him during a debate of running “a radical political organization”—a clunky reference to the gun-control group that Kelly launched with his wife. The criticism was seen as a desperate move from a candidate down in the polls. Kelly defended Giffords while also noting that he was a gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment. “He’s almost impenetrable on this issue,” Mike Noble, an Arizona pollster, told me. By keeping relatively quiet on guns, he said, Kelly could inoculate himself against charges that he was politicizing his wife’s tragedy while effectively daring the GOP to attack him.

Kelly’s decision not to wage a big public fight on guns could disappoint progressives who assumed that if anyone was going to seize the issue in the Senate, it would be him. But he has won admiration on the left simply by voting as a more loyal Democrat than Sinema, whose steadfast opposition to parts of Biden’s agenda has enraged progressives in Arizona and could draw her a primary challenge in 2024.

Kelly won’t know which of three leading GOP contenders—state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, the Donald Trump–backed Blake Masters, or the businessman Jim Lamon—he’ll face this fall until the Arizona primary in August. The bipartisan gun-control bill might help him, but chances are that Kelly will run this race as he did the last one, with a focus on issues such as jobs and border security rather than the one he’s most famous for.

Last night, the Senate approved the legislation known as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. The bill passed with the vote of a man who once made combatting gun violence his life’s work, even if it didn’t have much of his imprint.