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Friday, August 18, 2017

WASHINGTON — The best show in town is making a comeback. Annie, get your gun, an old-fashioned filibuster is happening on the Senate floor.

Led by Christopher Murphy, the junior senator from Connecticut, a rising profile in courage, Senate Democrats are showing gumption and backbone over the Orlando bloodbath, the worst mass shooting in American history. The tragedy has changed the minority senators, now acting like they’re alive, after 49 were slain in cold blood, their killer firing hundreds of rounds, the FBI said. You could read their faces: No surrender until two simple gun measures are voted upon.

The Democratic chorus of anguish and anger went something like this: We need more than another moment of silence. We’re here to prick the conscience of the Senate. It’s impossible for us to go home if we do nothing. Is everyone so afraid of the gun lobby? My constituents are calling in tears.

I was there, listening to their voices in the chamber. It was the best thing I’ve seen in the Senate since 1999.

You remember the race-based murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, only a year ago. I heard from a white Charleston writer that nobody is “over” the tragedy. The Virginia Tech mass murders will always be the worst day of my life, said a Virginia lawmaker. As for the elementary school shootings at Sandy Hook, in Newtown, Connecticut, surely the trauma of losing loved ones has not passed there, either. Closure is for the birds.

It’s become the American way of death, gun violence. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., stood to say 488 died in Chicago last year at gunpoint.

Also joining Murphy were Senators Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, among dozens of Democrats to stand up and speak out against the stone wall of silence the Senate has shown to the gun violence epidemic for years. The party chieftains, Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., crossed the floor to put their hands on Murphy’s shoulder.

In other words, they weren’t watching the Mitch McConnell show anymore — the brazen Senate Republican leader who has played “No-bama” against the president, recently denying his Supreme Court pick a hearing. The canny McConnell, like the sheriff in town, may yield on a bill denying suspected terrorists on the “no-fly list” access to buying weapons.

A young ‘un, Murphy planned the filibuster — an ambush on regular business — and deftly seized the floor at 11:21 a.m. His colleagues did not just watch a junior senator sink or swim. Showing team spirit in public, they jumped right in the pond with him. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., spent hours supporting the extraordinary scene. Close to 40 Democrats joined the winding colloquy Murphy started, through the day and into the night.

Twelve hours later, the slim Murphy, 42, looked poised to talk as long as it takes. “They brook no compromise,” the lawyer said about McConnell and Republicans generally.

The second measure Murphy held up as a condition was a vote on universal background checks. This idea has lost on this floor before, three years ago, and it broke his freshman senator’s heart.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre, Murphy was brand new to the Capitol and coping with the heartbreak back home in Connecticut. The school principal, five teachers, and 20 children were lost in a blaze of bullets. And it was on his shoulders to try to make something right.

A bill on background checks lost narrowly in the Senate that spring. President Obama, the exact opposite of Lyndon Johnson’s temperament, kind of let it be. He doesn’t like to play the heavy toward the Senate, once known as “The Plantation.”

But I remember feeling Obama might have done more to keep his promise to grieving communities in Connecticut to stanch the flow of blood by gun. The margin was a handful of votes, child’s play to Johnson.

In his Senate baptism, Murphy was galvanized. For a few years, he kept a lonely vigil on gun violence — until now. “Why did you sign up for this job?” he asked by day.

At night, he answered his question: “This is a national movement.” Look for a few stones to fall from the wall. Soon.

Photo: U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) (center L) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) (center R) depart the Senate floor directly after ending a 14-hour filibuster in the hopes of pressuring the U.S. Senate to action on gun control measures, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst