Passionate voice for gun control to leave Congress amid reform impasse

Prominent gun-law advocate Carolyn McCarthy will retire from House as national momentum for change stalls

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., at a news conference in January 2013. Faced with congressional inaction, many states have pushed through modest changes to gun laws.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

WASHINGTON — Carolyn McCarthy rode into Congress in 1996 on her anguish, anger and fervor. The Long Island nurse sought to revamp the country’s gun laws after a spray of bullets aboard a commuter train killed six people, including her husband, Dennis, and severely wounded her son, Kevin.

A lifelong Republican, McCarthy ran as a Democrat in 1996 to oust the GOP incumbent, Rep. Dan Frisa, after he voted in favor of lifting the 1994 assault weapons ban that she championed. McCarthy became the face and voice of gun-control advocates, perhaps brashly thinking she could accomplish things quickly, only to find that change happens slowly, if it all. Now she is leaving politics.

When McCarthy announced last week she would forgo a 10th term, the 70-year-old Long Island Democrat, who is battling lung cancer, again acknowledged that only “modest progress” had been made to stem the carnage from gun violence.

Not even the December 2012 massacre of 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., could spur congressional action. As the health-worker-turned-politician prepares to exit the political landscape, she leaves little sign of momentum. She arrived on the scene as a champion of those wanting more gun control; she is leaving as a symbol for a nation that has taken few steps toward that goal.

Gun-control advocates have mostly failed in mustering support for tougher federal gun laws over the past two decades, while gun-rights forces have achieved significant successes, according to Robert Spitzer, the author of “The Politics of Gun Control” and a professor of political science at the Cortland campus of the State University of New York.

When it comes to gun control, “Congress has fallen short,” he said. “And I wouldn’t expect any change anytime soon, at least on the federal level.”

The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights advocates continue to hold powerful sway, and gun-control advocates have been unable to undo many of the significant advances achieved by the NRA during the two terms of President George W. Bush.

In 2003 law enforcement could no longer release information about where criminals bought guns. The following year Congress declined to extend the 1994 ban on assault rifles and high-cartridge magazines. And in 2005 gun manufacturers were granted immunity from lawsuits that sought to hold them liable for crimes committed with firearms.

Then in a milestone in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Second Amendment gave individuals the right to possess firearms in their homes for self-defense.

As for gun-control advocates, Spitzer said, “There’s really been nothing to speak of on the national level.”

Gun-control advocates have mostly failed in mustering support for tougher federal gun laws over the past two decades, while gun-rights forces have achieved significant successes.

The figures tell a story as powerful as any words. Americans own some 270 million guns, making the United States the most armed civilian population in the world, based on a 2011 tally by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. In 2011, there were 31,672 deaths in the U.S. from firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s up from 28,874 in 1999, but per capita, the rate has remained generally steady over the past decade.

Yet last year, for a time, the national anguish over Newtown seemed to bring the possibility of bipartisanship on the issue. It did not last long. When the Senate failed in April to expand background checks for gun buyers, ban assault weapons and limit the capacity of gun magazines, President Barack Obama called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

While gun-control advocates haven’t abandoned efforts to push for stricter gun laws on the federal level, much of their focus is turning away from Congress, particularly when the Capitol’s dysfunctions make it ever more challenging to win agreement on major legislation — on firearms or otherwise.

“If you only look through the congressional lens, you’d be frustrated,” said Josh Horowitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

But he and other advocates hope the White House will take action on its own by issuing rules that don’t require congressional approval.

For example, Obama recently proposed two new rules that would further restrict who can possess a gun. One proposal would lower the barriers that prevent some states from sharing mental-health information with a national data bank used for checking gun buyers’ backgrounds. Another rule would clarify who is prohibited from owning firearms for mental-health reasons.

“Certainly, we haven’t had many successes on the federal level,” acknowledged Leah Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “But when it comes to gun safety in the United States, you have to look at the states first, because they’re the ones taking action and getting things done.”

Since the Newtown shootings, 21 states have enacted laws to curb gun violence, with eight states passing major reforms, according to a joint report released last month by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

While the NRA continues to be a powerful force in influencing political campaigns and legislation — it spent nearly $21.4 million on various campaigns during the 2012 election cycle — competing groups, including one bankrolled by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have vowed to use their deep pockets to advocate for tougher gun laws.

‘This whole political thing’

Interestingly, McCarthy announced her retirement on the third anniversary of the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and nearly took the life of one of her then-colleagues Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Like McCarthy before her, Giffords has become one of the highest-profile advocates for tougher gun laws. She and her husband established a political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, dedicated to curbing gun violence.

In an essay published by The New York Times on Wednesday, Giffords, who resigned her post in 2012 to concentrate on her recovery, chided Washington for its inaction.

“I’ve seen grit overcome paralysis,” she wrote. “My resolution today is that Congress achieve the same.”

But if history is any indication — and again just like McCarthy — Giffords could be expecting too much from a legislative body that may be too dysfunctional to act.

Gun-control advocates have had their ups and downs, conceded Barbara Hohlt, who chairs the board of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of activists from 27 states, from Maine to Hawaii.

“When the federal assault-rifle ban passed in 1993, we thought things were changing. We were all encouraged. And there was a lot being done on the state level. Deaths from gun violence were going down. Things were starting to have an effect.”

“Then what happened? This whole political thing,” she said, referring to the NRA-powered red tide that swept Democrats out of power in Congress. “Democrats began shying away from supporting resources against gun violence.”

The movement has yet to fully recover, at least on the federal level. But she and others hope the continued outcry over Newtown and other recent tragedies will strengthen the country’s resolve to address the need for stronger gun laws.

But as McCarthy wrote just days after the Newtown shootings, “The day for that conversation was long before all those kids in Connecticut died.”

“And before the mall shooting in Oregon. And before the temple shooting in Wisconsin. And before the movie theater shooting in Colorado.” 

“And before Tucson and before Binghamton and before Virginia Tech and before Columbine and before my husband was killed on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993 and long before that too.”

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