01.13.11

A Family Murder Inspired This Congresswoman to Act

Seventeen years ago, Carolyn McCarthy’s husband and son were victims of a senseless shooting spree. Now in her eighth term in Congress, she tells Eleanor Clift about taking on the NRA in the wake of Jared Loughner.

The full impact didn’t hit Carolyn McCarthy until the day after Gabrielle Giffords was shot, as she sat, riveted, watching a press conference with the medical team trying to save her House colleague’s life.

The scene brought back memories of a very similar press conference where doctors said her son had a 5 to 15 percent chance of surviving his head wound. The shooting in Tucson was, for McCarthy, another terrible reminder of the havoc and heartbreak that gun violence causes in America.

The New York congresswoman’s husband was gunned down—and her son seriously injured—by a lone individual who had rampaged through the car they were riding in on the Long Island Railroad. A single gunshot to the head took the life of her husband, Dennis, and another direct shot to the head left son Kevin fighting for his life. When the shooting stopped, the tally was much like what we saw in Tucson, six people dead and 19 others injured. The gunman, Colin Ferguson, after rejecting an insanity plea and acting as his own lawyer, is serving several consecutive life sentences in a New York correctional facility.

Her passion to do what she can to prevent the gun violence that irrevocably altered her life brought her to Washington, where she is now serving her eighth term.

What McCarthy calls “the incident” happened 17 years ago. Although the medical experts may have given her son as much as a 15 percent chance of survival, “the nurse in me said that’s zero,” she recalls. “But the mother in me believed he would survive.” Though he remains partially paralyzed and continues in physical therapy, Kevin McCarthy is married and the father of two children. “He’s adjusted,” she says.

McCarthy had been working as a licensed practical nurse, and as her son slowly recovered and had to learn once again how to speak, she began her transformation into an activist. “I asked myself, how did this happen? And I started looking into gun violence and what happened to my family, and the other families, and I decided to speak out about it. It was not easy,” she says. “I was probably the quietest person you ever want to meet.”

She channeled her grief into action, testifying on Capitol Hill in support of a federal ban on assault weapons, and she was at the White House when President Clinton signed the 10-year ban into law in September 1994. After that year’s midterms, with Republicans seizing control of both chambers of Congress, there was an attempt to repeal the ban. McCarthy’s congressman voted for repeal, “and I just got mad at him,” she recalls, “and being Irish, I simply let him know how mad I was. A reporter asked me would I run against him, and I said I might think about it, and that was it.”

McCarthy was a registered Republican, but had not been active in the party. Her newly awakened political aspirations drew no encouragement from local GOP officials, while local and national Democrats worked hard to convert her.

Talking to her, you get the feeling she still can’t quite believe what’s happened to the quiet nurse from Mineola. “A split second can change your life,” she says. Her passion to do what she can to prevent the gun violence that irrevocably altered her life brought her to Washington, where she is now serving her eighth term. “If the incident had not occurred, no, I wouldn’t have run,” she says. “I don’t think the average citizen thinks about that, I was a nurse.”

Throughout her tenure, McCarthy has been carrying the banner for gun control, and she’s preparing now to introduce legislation that would ban large-capacity ammunition clips, like the kind Jared Loughner carried in Tucson. “Republicans say I’m taking advantage of another shooting, but I’ve introduced this legislation on large-capacity clips many times before because that’s what Colin Ferguson used on the Long Island Railroad,” she says. Ferguson had four 15-round high-capacity clips. Loughner shot over 30 bullets before he was tackled as he paused to reload.

“Why do we have these for the general public?” she asks. “I can understand for police officers and the military. I asked the NRA—tell me why this is so offensive to you? I can understand target shooting, but couldn’t you try to adjust to 10 bullets? They said it’s not as much fun.” (The NRA, for its part, is in no-comment mode. "At this time, anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate," says Andrew Arulanandam, the lobby's director of public affairs.)

The early predictions are that McCarthy’s proposal is likely to go nowhere in the new Republican-controlled House. And she’s not surprised: the Democrats weren’t eager to tackle gun violence either when they were in the majority.

“It’s fear of the NRA,” she says, arguing that the lobby has successfully equated any gun control measure with taking away people’s guns. “People don’t like the word ‘control,’” she says, pointing out that a group she belongs to, New Yorkers for Gun Control, changed its name to New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.

She’s had some victories, most recently in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007. Because the gunman there was able to legally buy a weapon despite a documented history of mental health problems, legislation introduced by McCarthy and grudgingly backed by the National Rifle Association allows federal and state governments to share this kind of incriminating information. She had first introduced the legislation five years earlier, after a shooting in her district in 2002. There was grumbling from the other side then, as there is now, that she was taking advantage of a tragedy. “For someone to say I sit around waiting for things like this to happen, it’s painful,” she says.

And yet McCarthy knows that the spotlight will linger only briefly on the issue that brought her to Congress. “What happens around here, we’re getting a lot of coverage now, but as Gabby gets better and people’s memories fade,” congressional leaders “will just delay it and delay it and basically do nothing until the next tragedy. That’s what I expect, but that doesn’t stop me.”

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.