President Obama’s spoke eloquently Wednesday night about the need for greater civility in our political discourse. But he continued to avoid calling for sane limits on gun sales in America.
True, guns don’t kill people, as our president might say, kowtowing to the National Rifle Association and the owners of some 280 million guns in America.
But sane and crazy people wielding semi-automatics with 30-bullet clips do
kill people. And Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the Democratic representative from Long Island’s 4th District, knows that all too well.
For McCarthy, this has been a particularly painful week.
She was home alone on Long Island 18 years ago when Colin Ferguson, a paranoid Jamaican immigrant, boarded the Long Island Rail Road at Grand Central. As the train was pulling into the Merillon Avenue station, he opened fire on the trapped commuters.
He managed to get off two clips and was reloading when three passengers tackled him and pinned him down until the police arrived.
At end of his killing spree, 6 people were dead, among them McCarthy’s husband, Dennis, and 19 were wounded, including her only son, Kevin.
Told that Kevin would not survive, McCarthy, a registered nurse, spent weeks at his bedside, praying, monitoring his care, and holding his hand as he hovered between life and death in a coma.
Then a registered Republican who had never paid much attention to politics, she began advocating gun control as fiercely as she had fought for her son’s recovery
Three years later after Kevin recovered, she ran for Congress as a Democrat and was narrowly elected. She has been campaigning ever since for saner guns laws.
“It gets very frustrating,” she told me Tuesday. “Sometimes I feel that we’re going backwards.”
She sees eerie parallels between the December 1993 massacre that changed her life and the tragedy in Arizona.
The victims in both attacks were trapped in spaces from which flight was difficult; the shooters in both assaults used large capacity clips; bystanders finally tackled and subdued the shooter — but only after 6 people had been killed in each attack and more than a dozen wounded.
After it was over, people who knew the shooters were astonished that these obviously disturbed men had not been forced to get psychiatric care and that these lunatics had been able to legally buy semi-automatic weapons with multiple clips.
Nine months after the Long Island Rail Road attack, Congress, with President Bill Clinton’s support, banned assault weapons, as well as the large-capacity clips that Ferguson and Jared Lee Loughner used, and restricted civilians to owning 10 rounds of ammunition, more than enough to kill a deer or an intruder — hell, even a gang of intruders.
But in 2004, President George W. Bush permitted the 10-year bill to expire, and maniacs like Loughner were able to buy not only a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol for roughly $600, but also an unlimited number of high-capacity clips containing 31-plus bullets each.
Now, as she prays once again for the recovery of a colleague she knows and respects, she cannot help but relive her own family’s tragedy and the vow she made then to help stop such senseless slaughter.
Yet again, she’s preparing to co-sponsor legislation to restore the section of the ’94 assault weapons ban that limits the sale of high-capacity clips. But she’s cautious. “We’ll have to see what we can get through Congress,” says the pragmatic McCarthy.
Advocates like her have few illusions about the art of the politically possible when it comes to guns. “In some ways, we are definitely moving backwards,” agrees Bryan Miller, a New Jersey-based gun control advocate who is project director of Cease-Fire New Jersey.
President Obama has been of “no help,” he complains. Obama fears being labeled “anti-gun,” a charge that helped sink Al-Gore’s presidential prospects.
Aided and abetted by the Supreme Court, gun-loving Americans can now carry pistols on Amtrak trains and in national parks. In Arizona and two other states, they can carry concealed weapons into Safeways, bars, and nurseries.
Some states have acted. In New York, New Jersey, and California, for instance, the required background check to buy a gun is more than the pro-forma affair it has become in places like Arizona.
Rejected by the army for using drugs and expelled from his community college for his erratic behavior, “Jared Lee Loughner would never have been permitted to buy that gun in either New York or New Jersey,” Miller asserts.
While federal law has barred the sale of guns to anyone declared mentally unfit since 1968, the provision has turned out to be almost impossible to enforce.
First, a court must decide if a person is mentally unfit — a high standard. And second, the states which are supposed to provide a FBI database with mental health records have been lax in doing so. Plus, a Ferguson or Loughner can always circumvent the limits by buying a gun illegally or from an unlicensed or unprincipled dealer at a gun show.
McCarthy must now negotiate with newly minted House Speaker John Boehner over what his Republican colleagues will accept. She’s tired of introducing measures that go nowhere.
Carolyn McCarthy never remarried, but her son Kevin is alive and thriving, thanks partly to her refusal to give up on him when doctors said there was no hope. It’s what keeps her going, she says — faith that Americans will eventually want reasonable steps to balance the rights of gun owners against the good of public safety.
Limiting the size of magazines and the types of weapons civilians can own is a sensible compromise that smacks of the “civility” President Obama urges, but lacks the political guts to endorse.
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