Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose family tragedy in the Long Island Rail Road massacre 20 years ago led her to become the face of gun control in Congress, said Wednesday she will not run for re-election this year -- a decision reached after health struggles.
McCarthy, a Mineola Democrat who turned 70 on Sunday, has been on leave to undergo treatment for lung cancer since June but said her decision to retire after 18 years in Congress wasn't based on any single factor.
"It was my time to go. It was my time to let new voices come in. It was my time to let someone else be the voice for my constituents," McCarthy said in an interview.
McCarthy is best known for her work to pass measures to curb gun violence, but she said her legacy also is about strong bipartisan ties, her record as a moderate Democrat and the bills she has passed on health, education, and finance issues.
"McCarthy was an unlikely player ushered in by tragic events," said retired Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights), a colleague in the Long Island delegation. "She was determined to make a difference."
A nurse and homemaker for 32 years, McCarthy was propelled on Dec. 7, 1993, into the public spotlight when gunman Colin Ferguson killed six, including her husband, Dennis, and wounded 19 -- her son Kevin among them -- on a Hicksville-bound Long Island Rail Road train.
She made herself an activist for gun control and then a candidate two years later when her congressman, Rep. Dan Frisa (R-Westbury), voted to repeal the 1994 assault weapon ban. McCarthy, a registered Republican running as a Democrat, beat Frisa 57 percent to 41 percent.
"Congress is losing a strong, persistent and great voice, particularly on the issue of sensible gun laws," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who encouraged McCarthy to run for office after her personal lobbying helped him pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994.
"She is someone who, as a nurse and mother from Mineola, was as in touch with her roots the day she retired as the day she entered Congress," he said. "We will succeed in good part because of her efforts."
President Barack Obama, in a statement, hailed McCarthy's "principled and compassionate leadership" on curbing gun violence, Wall Street reforms after the 2008 crash and college affordability. "Like many across the nation, Michelle and I admire Carolyn's determination and personal strength," Obama said.
McCarthy said she initially had planned to serve two years to pass strong gun laws. But she found she loved the job and the struggle that came with it.
In a House controlled by Republicans for all but two of her nine terms and Democrats reluctant to take on the National Rifle Association, McCarthy said she had mainly small victories on gun issues. Her biggest achievement took five years: the National Instant Background Check Improvements Act of 2007.
As the first significant gun-control bill in 14 years, the act funds states to update records of ineligible gun buyers, including the mentally ill and felons, and requires federal agencies to share that information.
"I never felt I could leave because I had become the face [of gun control] after a tragedy," she said.
Yet the outpouring of support for bills to curb gun violence after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., school in December 2012 convinced her that others can step up as new faces of the movement.
"It's something that I have been thinking about really from the half past year," she said, "and after what happened at Newtown, so many voices came out . . . and their voices were so strong."
She said they include former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman critically wounded in a shooting three years ago Wednesday.
Brian Malte, executive director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said, "She helped inspire a whole generation of advocates."
The National Rifle Association, her foe in legislative and public battles, did not respond to a request for comment.
McCarthy said she has finished chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, but remains on medication. She declined to talk in detail about her health, or about a lawsuit she has filed against more than 70 companies alleging their actions, exposing her to asbestos in her youth, played a role in her developing cancer.
She said she had planned to return to Washington this week but her doctors advised her to wait to avoid catching the flu. She said she expects to return in a "couple of weeks."
McCarthy expected her announcement to set off a scramble for her seat job, but she hasn't settled on endorsing a successor.
In the interview in her Mineola home, where she moved as a child and still lives, McCarthy said she's not walking away from the cause.
"Just because I'm leaving Congress doesn't mean I'm not going to be an activist," she said. "I couldn't even imagine leaving Congress, and think I'm just going to go into retirement. That's not who I am."