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Carolyn McCarthy reflects on 1993 LIRR shooting, gun violence, activism

Twenty-five years later, the former congresswoman looks back at the Long Island Rail Road tragedy that took her husband and spurred her activism.

Kevin McCarthy is consoled by his mother, Carolyn

Kevin McCarthy is consoled by his mother, Carolyn McCarthy, in Nassau County Court in March 1995, as he asks a judge to punish Colin Ferguson severely for his shooting rampage aboard an LIRR train, left. Photo Credit: Newsday/Al Raia; AP/Mary McLoughlin

The Christmas tree still hadn’t been brought in, even though Carolyn McCarthy specifically had asked her husband, Dennis, and son, Kevin, to take it in on that night of Dec. 7, 1993. They had promised to do so when she saw them off that morning at the Long Island Rail Road’s Mineola station to commute to their jobs at Prudential Securities in Manhattan.

“Oh, those boys!” she recalled saying that night in exasperation as she pulled her blue Toyota SUV into their driveway on Nancy Street in Mineola after her nursing shift at Glen Cove Hospital. Then, her brother Tommy rushed up to her.

“‘Carolyn, Kevin is in the hospital. We need to get there. They don’t expect him to live,’” she recalled of the moment she also learned that her husband of 27 years was dead in a Long Island Rail Road massacre.

'When he opened his eyes, I said – and this is the mother talking, not the nurse – 'I’m going to make sure he survives.''

Carolyn McCarthy, on seeing her son in the hospital after the shooting

“I took a deep breath,” she recalled in an interview 25 years after the tragedy. “When I saw Kevin coming out of the operating room, I didn’t even recognize him. When he opened his eyes, I said — and this is the mother talking, not the nurse — 'I’m going to make sure he survives.' And thank God he did.”

She would care for Kevin for the next two years as he struggled to recover from the head injury he suffered in the shooting, in which six people were killed and 19 were wounded by a man wielding a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun. As she did, she received support from friends and in letters from thousands of people nationwide who had been touched by similar tragedies. Many urged her to run for Congress to take on gun violence head on.

For a long time she resisted. McCarthy had a severe fear of public speaking and suffered from dyslexia, which made the idea of such work daunting. Then she saw politicians promise to combat gun violence shortly after the LIRR tragedy only to vote against even watered-down gun control measures. In Albany, she lobbied for state gun control laws with former Gov. Mario Cuomo, but legislators “treated victims like they were taking up their time,” she said.

Then, Carolyn Cook McCarthy said, “I got my Irish up.”

A lifelong Republican, McCarthy was debating whether to run for Congress when Rep. Dan Frisa, who held the 4th Congressional District seat, voted to repeal the national assault weapon ban that was expiring, siding with House Speaker Newt Gingrich despite popular support for the ban in Nassau County. For McCarthy, it was the last straw.

She agreed to run as a Democrat, although the local party had little to offer in terms of cash or staff in a district dominated by the Nassau County Republican machine. But an outpouring of support for her created an army of volunteers knocking on doors and calling homes throughout the district. She won by 17 percentage points.

"I didn’t expect to really win. I was shocked when I did," she said. "I felt, being naive about how Congress worked, that I'd go for two years and come home."

Instead, she had an 18-year career in Congress, where she led the fight for gun control.

Today, at 74 years old and five years free of the cancer that contributed to her retirement from Congress in 2015, McCarthy is at peace with her achievements — including better background checks and the ban on some assault weapons — as well as losses, including the failure to outlaw large capacity ammunition clips and exploding bullets like those used in the LIRR shooting.

But the pain of her personal tragedy rages back with every mass shooting. The rate of the tragedies has tripled since 2011 to one mass shooting every 64 days, according to a study by Harvard School of Public Health and Northeastern University using data from the FBI and Mother Jones magazine.

'But I can’t help but turn [the TV] on. There is such a list of mass shootings, it becomes overwhelming. I cry a lot.'

-Carolyn McCarthy, on watching news coverage of other mass shootings

Every time, emails from friends flood McCarthy’s inbox: “Don’t turn on the TV.”

“But I can’t help but turn it on,” she said. “There is such a list of mass shootings, it becomes overwhelming. I cry a lot.”

Her fight against gun violence has dominated her professional life after the tragedy. Although McCarthy passed some education bills among the two dozen bills she sponsored, she would never escape the label of being a one-issue congresswoman. 

Many of her gun control bills that stalled in Washington later became law in states such as New York, including closing the “gun show loophole” where firearms were sold with little documentation and trigger locks.

“I cannot recall any other member of Congress before her who led with the gun issue as she did,” said Robert J. Spitzer, a political-science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland who studies gun laws nationwide and is a national commentator on the issue. “She was a leading voice in the 1990s, but a lonely voice in the 2000s when Democrats abandoned the issue.”

However, he added: “Her advocacy paved the way for the new generation leaders on the issue.”

Not all of “the gun lady’s” reviews were glowing.

She was derided as “a professional widow” by The Bullet, a magazine about protecting gun-owner rights. She was laughed at in a National Rifle Association panel at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Committee when a video of an interview was played in which she couldn’t define “a barrel shroud,” which was regulated in a bill she co-sponsored. A barrel shroud protects the shooter from burns when a barrel is heated by a rapid, multiple shots.

'In Congress they said they offered their thoughts and prayers. I just felt like screaming out, ‘Enough! Enough!''

Carolyn McCarthy, on the Newtown shooting

Even as she took on the NRA, and sometimes tried to work with the firearms lobbyist on legislation, she had to deal with repeated national tragedies such as the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting in which 20 students and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on a very personal level.

“Newtown, when I was still in Congress, probably hit me the hardest because there were so many children,” she said. “In Congress they said they offered their thoughts and prayers. I just felt like screaming out, ‘Enough! Enough!’”

But Tea Party Republicans blocked many of her proposals, including ones to ban guns and gun devices that have no use for hunting or target shooting but were used in mass shootings. She had trouble getting anyone to listen to her.

She recalled a floor debate against a Republican.

“I said, ‘Did you read the bill?’

“He said: “I don’t have to read the bill.’

“And I looked at him, and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’

“He said, ‘I know where I stand and I don’t have to read what you wrote.’”

“The frustration?” she said. “What can I tell you? I don’t even know the word for it. The stress was not good for me.”

Today she’s quick with a quip and keeps busy with friends in Florida. There, in a town she won’t disclose, she seeks “to not to be known” after the harassment and death threats she received in office. Many of the people she meets don’t realize she is an icon of the gun control movement.

She marvels at Kevin’s continued recovery from being partially paralyzed on his left side in the shooting. Although he will never fully recover, he works stubbornly at getting stronger — “I wonder where he gets it!” she laughed.

She also looks forward to an upcoming move from Long Island to the South by Kevin, now 52; his wife; and McCarthy’s two grandchildren, who are in college, which she said “scares the Dickens out of me.” And she remembers the good times with her husband, Dennis, who as a teenager at Jones Beach plied Carolyn’s phone number away from her boyfriend at the time to spark their love affair.

Today, she seeks to help the next generation of advocates against gun violence. She hasn’t done interviews in years and won’t appear on TV cable new shows. Instead, she meets with young people and tries to put new leaders in the spotlight.

“Unfortunately, and I can speak for all victims, when a shooting happens it brings us back to that moment that it happened,” she said. “You remember what you went through and you know what families will go through.”

But she knows these survivors of later shootings will also see unimaginable good and strength in people. She remembers the Long Islanders who paid for renovations to her bathroom to help Kevin, Prudential Securities, which paid Kevin’s huge health care bills even though he hadn’t yet worked there long enough to qualify for health insurance, the legion of volunteers of both major political parties who knocked on doors for her campaign, the Washington reporters who helped her find a safe apartment, and the courage of survivors pushing lawmakers to act just weeks after their families were shattered by gun violence.

'As horrible as everything was, the kindness of everyone never stopped. To see the strength after it always gives me chills.'

Carolyn McCarthy, on the support her family received after the shooting

“As horrible as everything was, the kindness of everyone never stopped,” she said. “To see the strength after it always gives me chills.”

McCarthy said she also sees hope in this year’s midterm elections, where Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Many of them had called for action on gun violence and many of them were women. In Congress, she met regularly with women of both parties to find common goals. McCarthy said she expects another women’s caucus to gain power as congresswomen bond over common backgrounds such as in PTAs, common priorities and common problems such as the difficulty of attracting campaign donors.

“That’s what women do. We try to juggle 10 things at one time and we are good at that,” she said. “Women know what battles they can fight and what they can win.”

She said, “Even the senators are smart enough” to listen to the people and to young people after what she sees as a turning point on the gun violence issue in the midterm elections.

“The young people, college students and high school students who are graduating, they are pledging to vote,” she said. “Those are the things that will make a difference.”

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