Capitol Hill's 'gun lady' McCarthy set to retire

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Posted: Dec 07, 2014 11:01 AM
Capitol Hill's 'gun lady' McCarthy set to retire

MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — The "gun lady" of Capitol Hill is going home.

Carolyn McCarthy was a Long Island nurse and housewife in December 1993 when she suddenly became the face of gun violence victims everywhere after her husband Dennis was killed and son Kevin wounded in a mass shooting on a commuter train leaving New York City.

Two decades later, McCarthy is retiring from Congress — where she was first elected as the quintessential citizen legislator vowing to bring an end to such tragedies.

Despite a litany of subsequent massacres since she took office in 1997 — at Columbine High School, in a Colorado movie theater, on the campus of Virginia Tech, inside Sandy Hook Elementary School and others — the now well-seasoned politician argues her tenure in Washington has been worthwhile even if she didn't accomplish all she set out to do.

"I think that having a voice there, my voice, added to what myself, my family and the other Long Island families went through," McCarthy says with a warm Irish smile at the dining room table in the same modest suburban home where she raised her family. "That did make a difference. ... Sometimes that's all you're going to get."

McCarthy points to one gun control measure she successfully saw to fruition — a bill signed by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre designed to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from buying guns. She sponsored the bill after a deranged man shot and killed a priest on the altar while celebrating Mass in a church in her district.

Despite a lack of legislative success in Washington, McCarthy says she is buoyed by movements in several states to have voters decide on tightening background checks for buying firearms.

"So if the legislators aren't going to do it, the people are going to vote on it," she said. "The work that I've done, maybe that didn't show a lot of bills getting passed, but I certainly have spent the time educating people."

McCarthy, who turns 71 next month, did not seek a 10th term after being diagnosed with lung cancer. After months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, McCarthy feels the best she has in years and concedes that sitting out a grueling re-election campaign helped.

"I'm doing great," she declared, confessing she had initial second-thoughts about retirement. "I'm going, 'Gee, I feel really good. Maybe I will run again.' Of course, my family goes, 'No! No, not going to happen,' and they were right."

Outspoken Republican Rep. Peter King, whose district borders McCarthy's, said despite different political viewpoints, he has gotten along well with his Democratic counterpart; he backs her stance on background checks.

"She put a human face on the tragedy of gun violence," he said. "She took it from the abstract and made it real. And she did not make her case looking for sympathy. She was never feeling sorry for herself."

Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, first met McCarthy when she visited his family in 1997 after his brother was wounded in a shooting at the Empire State Building.

"She came to offer the love and support of a wife and mother who had been through that. I think that says as much as anything about what Carolyn McCarthy has been as a leader."

Gross is adamant there is no reason to be defensive about McCarthy's gun-control legacy.

"She kept the issue alive and kept a vitally important conversation going at a time when it wasn't popular," he said. "Things are setting up well to achieve historic success and we would not be in this position today if not for the work Carolyn McCarthy has done in the last 18 years."

After nine terms, McCarthy is known as the "gun lady" of Capitol Hill; hardly the amateur lawmaker who first arrived in 1997. She is saddened by the vitriol that has enveloped Washington. "Now it seems personal," she lamented. She recently chastised a freshman lawmaker for bickering over a piece of legislation.

"I said there's no such thing as a perfect bill. You're going to be voting on technical changes for as long as you're here and I just felt like a schoolteacher."

Lawrence Levy of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University said it is unfair to judge McCarthy as a single-issue politician. "Over the years she broadened her work — in health care, the environment and other quality-of-life issues. She has absolutely nothing to apologize for about her career."

In retirement, McCarthy says she looks forward to continuing to be a doting grandmother to the two children born to her son, who doctors initially feared might not survive the Dec. 7, 1993, shooting that killed six and wounded 19.

McCarthy also intends to do some teaching at local Long Island universities, but has little appetite to write a book as so many other former politicians have done.

"If I did a book — I just can't see myself doing it — it would have nothing to do with Congress," she said. "It would maybe talk inspirational on how people have strength in them they don't know about until it calls upon them to have it."