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…