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Carolyn McCarthy

A Partisan Waits for Her Shot Against a Well-Armed Gun Lobby

July 11, 1999|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly and author of "A Moment on Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism."

WASHINGTON — Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) came to politics in the worst possible way: through murder. In December 1993, a deranged man, who had easily acquired a semiautomatic pistol, began shooting at random on a Long Island commuter train, killing six people, including McCarthy's husband, Dennis, and seriously injuring her only child, Kevin. A homemaker and licensed practical nurse whose own biography says she "led a mostly quiet life" until the day of the murders, McCarthy responded by starting a crusade for gun control, speaking out at gatherings around New York state. Two years after her husband's death, the sitting Republican congressman from her suburban district, Rep. Daniel Frisa, joined the bizarre Newt Gingrich-era attempt to repeal the federal ban on the sale of assault weapons. Incensed, McCarthy, a lifelong Republican, decided to run against Frisa. Convinced there was no chance of ousting him in the primary, she filed as a Democrat, won the nomination and soundly defeated Frisa in the 1996 general election. Last fall, she was reelected to her second term as a Democrat, though she remains a registered Republican.

During her tenure in Congress, McCarthy has repeatedly said, "My priority is guns." She has championed reforms such as requiring childproof locks with handgun purchases, but between her junior status on Capitol Hill and the House's Republican leadership, McCarthy, so far, has nothing to show for her efforts. In the wake of the Columbine High School murders last April, when gun control came to the fore, McCarthy commanded national attention for her proposal to extend background checks at gun-show sales. Though McCarthy's legislation was very similar to a bill that had already passed the Republican-led Senate, it went down to defeat in the House in mid-June when Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, a pro-gun Democrat, threw his weight behind the Republican position. After McCarthy's gun-show amendment failed, the House rejected the overall gun-control package in a strange, late-night vote during which pro-NRA factions who wanted to block legislation were joined by antigun factions that thought the bill too diluted to be worth passage. McCarthy voted against the bill.

McCarthy, 55, is learning the art of Washington politics. A few days after the gun-control defeat, she stood up with Dingell at a press conference on HMO reform, a subject on which they agree, though the ice between the two was obvious. A slight and soft-spoken woman who talks ("tawks") in the quasi-brogue of New York-area Irish Americans, she has had much more impact on Capitol Hill than most junior members, owing to her personal story and ceaseless determination. McCarthy serves on the education and small-business committees, and, in addition to gun control, she has advocated stricter antidrug enforcement for schools, better access to college for the poor and a higher minimum wage to make legitimate employment more attractive than crime. "Gun violence is the end product of society's ills, and in order to stop the violence we must address the root causes," McCarthy says. She spoke to The Times in her Washington office.


Question: In the end you and all gun-control advocates in the House voted against the June gun bill, calling it a sham. What happened?

Answer: We knew that something was up well in advance. The Senate had voted for gun-show background checks just after the Columbine massacre. But House [Republican] leadership would not let us bring the companion bill to the floor before the Memorial Day break. The House leaders wanted to give the National Rifle Assn. time to rally opposition. By the time the bill was on the floor, the NRA had used spin to get everyone confused. Just today, two weeks later, one of the members came up to me and said he was sorry he couldn't support my amendment, but he thought that a 90-day FBI file provision [for keeping records during background checks] was just too much. I said, "But the law currently allows the FBI to keep a file on you for 180 days. My amendment would have reduced the time." The NRA was putting out this spin that I was creating a new 90-day FBI provision, when actually I was cutting back a current provision. That's the kind of tactics that were used against my position.

Overall, by the time the bill came to the floor, it had been so gutted it was not worth passing. The House so-called gun-control bill actually would have scaled back some provisions of the Brady Bill [a 1994 law that required background checks for handgun purchases, named for Ronald Reagan's press secretary James S. Brady]. I certainly was not going to vote for something that scaled back existing gun law. Clearly, the pro-gun forces wanted the vote at 1:30 A.M. because they were hoping the American public wouldn't be watching. When I got back here to my office at 2 A.M., we had dozens of calls coming in, from people who were watching C-SPAN at 1:30 A.M. and were outraged by what they had just witnessed.


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