On December 7, 1993, a disturbed man boarded a Long Island Rail Road train carrying a handgun with a 15-round magazine and a canvas bag full of ammunition. He coolly gunned down six people and wounded 19 others before passengers subdued him. Among the dead was Dennis McCarthy, the husband of future Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.). He was on his evening commute back to Mineola with the couple’s son, Kevin.
Another of the gunman’s bullets tore through Kevin’s brain. In a Manhasset hospital, doctors gave him a 10 percent chance of survival. He beat the odds, and in 2012 he told the New York Times that despite the brain trauma that still affects his daily life, he’s been able to move on: “Get married. Live life. Have two kids.”
But almost two decades ago, as her son began his arduous recovery, Carolyn McCarthy had suddenly found herself in the regular eye of the media. She embraced the attention, becoming an important voice for gun control. In 1996, she coasted into Congress and quickly established a reputation as the “doyenne of anti-gun advocates in the House.” McCarthy has since sponsored a range of gun legislation, including a bill to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that passed with the blessing of the National Rifle Association, and multiple attempts to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines with more than 10 rounds—her current legislative focus.
McCarthy now serves as a vice chair of the House’s newly assembled gun violence task force. She spoke with Mother Jones last week before Congress reconvened to once again take up the divisive task of reforming America’s gun laws.
Mother Jones: You recently described your efforts against gun violence as a “very lonely battle for many, many years.” After the Long Island Rail Road shooting, there have been dozens more like it. What goes through your mind when you hear news of another?
Carolyn McCarthy: I first got to Congress, obviously, to try to get involved with reducing gun violence because of what happened to my family, and learned over the course of time that these kind of killings and daily shootings were destroying so many families. Each time there was another mass killing there would usually be a very short period of concentration on it. You would see that the papers and TV would pick the story up, and if it lasted more than 10 days of coverage that would be considered a lot.
And then Virginia Tech happened. I noticed that everybody was shocked when we found out that [shooter Seung-Hui] Cho had been adjudicated mentally ill. [That’s when] we passed the NICS bill that I had worked with the NRA on; we knew we could get it onto the floor for a vote.
MJ: During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) assault weapons ban, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that Newtown had “changed America.” What’s different about this shooting that has kept it in the news for so long?
CM: You have to remember, we had Aurora, the shooting at the temple, we had a number of other shootings leading up to Newtown. But Newtown, I think, struck a chord with everybody. Having innocent children, and anybody with an imagination trying to visualize when you’re talking about a child being shot 7 to 11 times, that went way over the line. People started thinking, “Wait a minute, this is happening in our schools now?” And when you think about the large magazines, which is something I’ve been fighting for [a ban on] because that is what was used in the shooting on the Long Island Rail Road, why do we need large magazines? Why? I understand sportsmen use it when they go to the shooting clubs. Hunters certainly don’t use it.
MJ: In the Senate, NRA member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has reportedly been negotiating with Republicans to reach a compromise on expanded background checks. Is the NRA more willing to negotiate behind the scenes than it will publicly admit?
CM: No, I don’t think they are willing to negotiate behind the scenes. The statements that have come out from the leadership of the NRA have made that very clear, and the message they keep sending out is, it’s infringing on Second Amendment rights. Which is not true; anybody with common sense can understand that.
When we met with them in the beginning with our task force, they seemed to be interested in working on [background checks] with us. But then 10 days later LaPierre came out and said absolutely not.
They’re afraid to give one inch. The NRA is basically afraid of the other fringe groups—Gun Owners of America and one or two of the others—where they feel everybody should have the right to own a gun. Which they do. Everybody keeps forgetting that. The Supreme Court made it very clear that people do have a right to own a gun, but they also said that the municipalities and the cities and the government have a right to protect their people.
MJ: Gun advocates argue that handguns are responsible for the majority of gun violence and that mass shootings are statistically rare, overcovered, and sensationalized in the media. Do they have a point that measures like a ban on assault weapons are misguided?
CM: No, they don’t. I’m talking as a victim now. We don’t want to be a number. Each one of those people who was killed leaves a family, leaves a community in shock.
I can speak for other victims of gun violence: It brings them back to that one moment when they learned that someone in their family was either killed or severely wounded. I think that’s the hardest part of this job, because it brings you back.
And those are memories—you get on with your lives, and we do. It’s very, very painful, and we know what these families are going to go through. It hits at our heart and our mind, and also takes another little piece away from ourselves.
MJ: How were your House colleagues affected by the Tucson shooting that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)? Did it make any of them more sympathetic to gun control?
CM: A couple of members have certainly come up to me after Gabby and after Aurora and, because it happened in their backyards, they were more sympathetic to what we were trying to do, and have begun working with us. So they are becoming more aware, and I think most Americans are becoming more and more aware. When you’re talking about how [more than] 3,000 people have died since Newtown, people are going, “Wait a minute, why are we doing this?”
Gabby has become more public with her daily struggle with life. Everyone who knew Gabby before the shooting, how outgoing she was, how energetic she was—she was just an absolutely lovely person. And she still is. But to see her struggle…How long does it take her to get dressed? How long does it take her to do something that would have taken only seconds to do? People don’t hone in on the leftover residue of that kind of a shooting.
MJ: Last July, you told the Daily Beast, “People used to say these killings take place only in the inner cities—that’s not true—it’s like a cancer, and it goes out everywhere.” But do we too conveniently ignore gun violence that doesn’t shock the sensibilities of relatively affluent, white Americans?
CM: It’s true. The daily killings that we see that add up to quite a large amount are basically in the urban settings. In the suburban areas people think they don’t have that issue.
It’s the easy access to these particular guns that [is the problem]. Anybody can get them. I’ve talked to young people: “How long if you wanted to go out and get a gun, how long would it take?” And they said, 15, 20 minutes. Everybody knows where you can buy a gun illegally, and that’s why even with New York and other states that have good laws, the guns are coming from out of state. That’s why you need to have federal legislation.
MJ: What do you make of this new concept of using 3D printers to make gun parts?
CM: A lot of people are concerned about that. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation last year on that. Not only can they do guns, but they could probably do other things that could be a danger to the general population. Both sides are looking at that.
But technology—that’s something else I don’t understand about the NRA. They started off being a gun safety group, and yet with the technology that’s out there, we’re going to see improvements in gun safety. And yet they’re against that. They don’t want the information coming out of the CDC.
Speaking as a nurse, people forget that information on how to save lives from car accidents, from motorcycle head injuries, a lot of that information that came out from studies from the CDC. We can make sure that we don’t see as many suicides, we can [see the effects of] laws on domestic violence or an order of protection, when there’s a cooling off period where you can’t [buy a gun].
MJ: You must be encouraged by Obama’s executive action on the CDC, then.
CM: I think the CDC has the right to look into [gun violence]. It’s not judging anybody, it’s just saying, “This is the way that we could save lives; this is the way we can prevent more injuries from happening.” Why is the Tiahrt Amendment so important? Why are you trying to stop our police officers from stopping crime? If they’re so protective of our police force, why do they stop them at every turn?
I’ll never understand the stances that they take. If anything, because of the NRA we saw higher incidences of violence in our country.
MJ: With groups like Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, do you see a counter NRA forming?
CM: Oh yes, I definitely do. I had said that many years ago when Mayor Bloomberg first started getting involved in the gun issue. He’s taken this issue very, very personally, mainly because he was the person who had to go to the hospital if a police officer was shot or killed. He had to go to the funerals, he had to go visit the parents of the young child who was murdered on the streets of his city.
All these gun groups are all on the same page. We’ve never been able to do that before. That’s the one thing we were always lacking. We didn’t have the money to counteract the NRA. Now we do.
MJ: If enough Republicans see that their constituents are overwhelmingly supportive of background checks, will they press for a vote because they feel not acting would cost them elections?
CM: They’ve got to vote. But I do not believe there is as much risk as they might think. I have always felt that the NRA was not as strong as most people gave them credit for. Yes, they’re powerful. No one should ever take them for granted. But I also believe that they have this myth about them that they can take down any member of Congress.
MJ: Why have so many politicians bought into that myth?
CM: [The NRA has] won some elections. But I never understood, even on the Democratic side, why they would bow to the NRA when it still was not there with them. There was one member from a very conservative state, he voted with me on a gun bill many years ago. It was a rough year for him, but he went out and explained why he voted for it—it was the right thing to do, he had been a former sheriff—and he won his election easily.
MJ: At what point would gun enthusiasts’ paranoia about a government gun grab become a legitimate complaint?
CM: This is their sport. I used to go skeet shooting. I just didn’t like it. Some people don’t like skiing; I was a great skier. It’s their sport, I respect their sport. They’re law-abiding citizens. It’s the ones who don’t care about the laws, don’t follow the laws, and don’t go for the background checks we need to worry about, and we make it too easy for them to buy guns.
But this paranoia out there, that the government is going to come over and knock at your door and take away your guns, that is purely the NRA’s tactic of fear. There are people who believe that, but they also believe in machine guns, which are banned, and making bombs to be prepared to fight the government.
MJ: After Virginia Tech, you were interviewed on MSNBC by Tucker Carlson, who hounded you about the definition of a barrel shroud.
CM: It was late at night, I was tired, I knew I would make mistakes. We were talking about the NICS bill and all of a sudden he threw that out at me.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to know every little thing about a gun. All I know is that the kind of guns that—and [banning] the large magazines that we’re trying to do on gun safety can save lives.
MJ: When did you first start feeling less lonely on this issue?
CM: I think it was after Virginia Tech. After Virginia Tech I wasn’t recovering as fast. The killings would keep going on in my mind more and more. Talking to other victims who have been in this battle for a long, long time—we had a hearing and I walked in and saw people whom I hadn’t seen in 15, 16 years, and we would just look at each other and break down crying. It’s very difficult, because you’re fighting for something you believe in. To see it continue, it breaks your heart. It just breaks your heart.
MJ: What gives you peace of mind after something like that?
CM: I worked as an ICU nurse, and if the patient didn’t survive it would be almost like the same feeling. Was there more that I could have done? Was there anything different that could have been done? But you go over it, over it, over it, and you know that there wasn’t anything else you could have done. Believe me, you wanted to stay home and get underneath that comforter and probably not face the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you’ve got to pick yourself up and go forward.