No End in Sight

Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy’s Lonely Crusade for Smarter Gun Control

She’s sought limits for gun sales and ammunition since her husband was fatally shot. By Eleanor Clift.

Brendan Smialowski, AFP / Getty Images

Mass shootings are hardly a new issue for Carolyn McCarthy.

Well before the latest atrocity in Aurora, Colo., she has been championing the cause of sensible gun limitations—and, given the toxic politics of Capitol Hill, getting nowhere.

The New York congresswoman has more than 100 co-sponsors for her bill to limit the number of rounds in a single magazine to 10, so the shooter of an assault weapon would have to pause to reload after getting off 10 shots. That pause to reload is what allowed unarmed citizens to stop the shooter that killed McCarthy’s husband and seriously hurt her son as they commuted home on the Long Island Railroad in 1993. And it was the pause that allowed unarmed citizens to interrupt the killing spree that took several lives and grievously wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona last year.

The problem is that the LIRR shooter, Colin Ferguson, had magazines with 15 rounds, and was only stopped when he paused to reload for the third time. The Tucson shooter had an oversize magazine with 33 rounds.

McCarthy’s personal experience propelled her into politics, where she works tirelessly on efforts to control gun violence in what must seem at times like a continuous loop—a tragedy occurs, gun advocates and gun-control supporters make their case, then we go back to the status quo.

The weapon used in the Aurora movie theater is an A-15 assault weapon, a civilian version of the military’s M-16, she says, and it has a large magazine clip—which is why a dozen people are dead and at least 50 were wounded in a relatively short period of time.

“The large magazine clip is meant for killing as many people as possible in a short period of time,” McCarthy told The Daily Beast. She says she thought that limiting the magazine to 10 rounds would be a proposal that could win approval on the Hill. “We know the atmosphere in Congress now,” she said. “Several Republicans said they would vote for it if it came to the floor, but the current leadership will not allow it to get a vote. The NRA and the gun manufacturers put a lot of money in to scare legislators—not just federal, but at the state level too—they say support this and we’ll take you out, you won’t get reelected.”

McCarthy says the NRA is reportedly prepared to spend more than $50 million in the current election cycle. “That’s the threat, and unfortunately members of Congress don’t have a spine to stand up to them.”

She points out that the Supreme Court, in overturning gun-control measures in the District of Columbia, affirmed the right to own a gun, but also said that government has a right to pass legislation to protect citizens. She recalls how Bill Clinton, who signed the assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004, would assure hunters they would still be able to go turkey shooting at Thanksgiving.

“So here you have another horrific killing,” she says. “Twelve people dead, many more in critical condition, and we should know in the next 72 hours how many will survive—this is crazy!

“Until the American people stand up and say 'Enough,' this will continue. 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.”

McCarthy is not calling for a reinstatement of the assault-weapons ban—that’s a bridge too far—but she believes a ban on large clips would at least make it a fairer fight when someone goes on a killing spree. “Who could be against this?” she asks plaintively. “There’s no reason to have these larger magazines on the streets— they’re only meant to kill … Let’s use some common sense here. If you can’t take something down in 10 bullets, you probably shouldn’t even own a gun.

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“The NRA says, ‘There she goes again, talking about gun violence.’ They say if someone had a gun in that movie theater, he [the shooter] could have been stopped. Their talking points haven’t changed in the 16 years I’ve been at this.”

In addition to the ban on large magazines, McCarthy is also sponsoring the Fix Gun Checks Act, which would close what’s known as the gun-show loophole. It would require a background check for every gun sale. Currently, private sellers at a gun show do not need to do any kind of background check. The legislation would also implement a set of penalties and incentives for states to provide names to the National Insta-Check Database, known as NICS. A number of states are not fully cooperating, or cooperating at all, and the bill would make it easier to report people who shouldn’t have guns (such as felons and the mentally ill) with monetary and technical assistance, and impose penalties for states that don’t report. NICS was first put in place in 1968 after the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations as part of the federal Gun Control Act.

McCarthy did have a breakthrough after the Virginia Tech shooting five years ago, when she pushed through legislation to improve and update the NICS database. She had the support of the National Rifle Association, and George W. Bush signed the bill into law. It would be nice to think that the tragic events in Aurora might spur that kind of cooperation on a commonsense limit to the size of magazines, but McCarthy is not making any predictions, not in an election year.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the Long Island Rail Road shooting happened in 1991 instead of 1993.