Carolyn McCarthy

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

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.

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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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Q: Gun proponents say the three-day waiting period for gun-show background checks, the center of your amendment, would be onerous.

A: Most people don't realize that the three-day waiting period is already existing law, but only for licensed gun dealers. When a legitimate store owner sells at a gun show, they still have to go through the background check. Those people who just go to gun shows to sell guns do not have to, and my amendment would have closed that loophole. Sales from people who are not licensed arms dealers, those are usually the guns that end up in criminal hands. And there's a myth out there that background checks take three days. That is the maximum period. Seventy percent of those who apply for the background instant checks get them within a few minutes; 90% get the approval within two hours. Those that might have to wait two or three days are the ones with a red flag, like a charge of a felony. Well, those are the people you want to have inconvenienced when they try to buy guns! But half the members here didn't understand what my amendment would really do.

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Q: Polls consistently show overwhelming public support for new gun restrictions, even among Republican voters and among gun owners--a recent University of Chicago poll, for instance, shows that 75% of gun owners favor handgun licensing. If support for gun reform is so strong, why does Congress consistently defy the public on this issue?

A: Congress doesn't hear much from the people who support gun restrictions; it does hear from the NRA. The NRA only cares about one thing and only votes on one thing. They're vocal and they threaten. There is also the bad taste on the Democratic aisle [from] 1994 when we lost control of the House. [Some commentators blame the 1994 loss on the vote to ban assault weapons.] I keep trying to explain to the Democratic caucus that this is totally different. In 1994, we were taking away assault weapons--taking guns out of homes. That's hotly contested. The NRA could call that the slippery slope. But this background check provision is totally different. It doesn't take away any existing gun. Its sole effect is to keep new guns out of the hands of criminals.

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Q: Are you fundamentally against gun ownership?

A: No. The 2nd Amendment is there. I respect the right of hunters to hunt. Gun-sporting events are OK with me. I do not want to infringe on the rights of honest gun owners. Look, the worst my bill would do to the honest gun owner is a computer mix-up that causes some inconvenience. I think the honest gun owners would gladly accept occasional inconvenience if it keeps guns out of the hands of people who aren't honest. If an honest person wants to own a gun, I don't have a problem with that. But if you own a gun, you must take responsibility for that gun. You should be licensed and have to pass a gun-safety test. What's wrong with that? We won't let people drive a car unless they have been licensed and passed a safety test. Isn't it common sense to apply the same standard to guns?

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Q: Don't gun advocates favor responsibility?

A: Some do, but not the NRA. Consider the children killed each year by guns their parents did not take responsibility for by keeping locked up. It really burns me when the NRA will say, "Well, it's only a few hundred dead children a year; more children drown in swimming pools." Yes, and the pool industry is trying like crazy to reduce that number, with high fences and alarm gadgets that float in pools and so on. Why can't we try like crazy to reduce accidental gun deaths? Gun manufacturers can build a better product; the technology is there for built-in locks or "smart guns." The NRA says these things are impossible. They're not, Colt has already built prototypes of smart guns. Will it make guns more expensive? Maybe, but if you spoke to a parent who had lost a child to a gun accident or a gun suicide and said, "Would you have been willing to pay $50 for a safer gun?" what do you think the answer would be?

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Q: A new study has shown that a very high proportion of guns used in crimes originate with unscrupulous dealers. Can Congress act on that?

A: My original bill called for a new federal initiative to trace guns back to find the unscrupulous dealers, and you'd think the law-abiding dealers would favor that. My bill was based on the Boston [Gun] Project, where police and [the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] worked hard to trace guns used in youth crimes back to the small number of dealers who sold them to kids and cracked down on those dealers big time. The Boston project was a fabulous success: After years of youth violence they went something like 40 months without a kid killing another kid with a gun. Yet, you can still buy guns in Boston, from the law-abiding dealers. This is the kind of thing we could do on the national scale without hurting anyone's Second Amendment rights. But there are many people in Congress who don't like the ATF and want to cut [its] funding. With gun violence the way it is, why are we cutting the agency that searches for illegal dealers in guns?

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Q: You've tried to increase funding to the ATF and also to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What does the CDC have to do with guns?

A: The CDC performs epidemiological and public-health studies. In the early 1990s, it was studying the trends in gun homicides and suicides and the total cost to our health-care system from the people who survive gun crimes but are disabled. Well, the NRA didn't want anyone to have those numbers, so in 1994 [it] got Congress to bar the CDC from funding this research any further. Now, whenever gun control comes up, the NRA says, "We don't know what's happening with gun crime and health; we don't have the research." The reason we don't have the research is the NRA!

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Q: There's tremendous debate about guns and culture. Other societies with high rates of gun ownership, like Norway, don't have anything like our rates of gun crime. Why? Is it the Wild West heritage? Is it Hollywood adoration of guns and violence?

A: That I think we're still trying to figure out. America's violent movies and video games get sent all over the world, and they don't necessarily cause violence in other countries. I think one of the reasons it's so much worse here is that getting guns is so easy here. Scandinavian societies have high rates of gun ownership per home but also tightly regulate and license their guns. You're less likely to see a person with no gun training grab a firearm on impulse, or to see kids getting their hands on guns when no adults are present.

We talk about the 13 victims killed at Littleton--15 people died there because the kids committed suicide. What we've seen in a lot of gun horrors is the wish to commit suicide. But because of the easy access to high-powered guns, it's not just the kids committing suicide who die; they want to take others along in what the troubled mind can think of as a splash on their exit. If it wasn't so very easy for kids to get guns, neither the killings nor the suicides would happen. Studies show that a big factor in teen suicide is easy access to a gun. If the suicidal teen can't get a gun, the suicide becomes far less likely. So maybe there's the big cultural difference: not that we have guns, because other nations do too, but that it's too easy for criminals and kids to get guns.

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Q: If Congress doesn't act, will gun control be a leading issue in the year 2000 presidential campaign?

A: I don't know if it will be in the top three, but it will be in the top five, mainly because women, mothers, are scared to send their children to school. That's intolerable. Without gun controls, the next Littleton is not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. Women voters, mothers, are not going to tolerate that.

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Q: What's it like being a Democratic congresswoman who's a registered Republican?

A: I don't wake up in the morning thinking I'm a Democrat or a Republican. On social issues, I'm definitely a liberal Democrat, and on fiscal issues I'm definitely a conservative Republican. That's the way I think most voters are today, liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues. Some people have said that since I sit in Congress as a Democrat, I am obliged to switch parties. But the people of my district voted me in as a Republican running as a Democrat, and that's the way I intend to remain.

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