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Editorial: Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's gentle dignity will be missed

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, at home in Mineola, announces

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, at home in Mineola, announces she will not seek re-election this year to Congress. (Jan. 8, 2014) Credit: Howard Schnapp

In a Congress dominated by career politicians, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, who announced Wednesdaythat she will not seek re-election, has been refreshingly different.

Propelled into public office by personal tragedy, she has been a gentle presence and citizen legislator in a tumultuous political arena where her spirit of bipartisan problem-solving is sadly in short supply.

Her story is well-known, but still powerful. She was a nurse, wife and mother living a quiet life far from the national spotlight until 1993, when a demented gunman on a Long Island Rail Road train killed her husband and five others, and wounded her son and 18 others. That loss inspired her to take on the issue of gun violence and launched her into a new life representing her Mineola district in Congress, which she has done with grace for 17 years.

McCarthy's signal legislative achievement -- the National Instant Background Check Improvements Act of 2007 -- was the first significant national gun-control legislation in 14 years.

Now battling lung cancer, McCarthy said there are new champions to carry on her crusade. She pointed to Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman gravely wounded three years ago, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as capable successors. The relatives of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims are also compelling advocates. But it's a bittersweet observation.

It's good there are able people to continue her fight. But it shows how little progress has been made that so many came to the fray as McCarthy did, after personal loss to gun violence.

In Congress, McCarthy branched out into issues as diverse as education, mental health, bullying and bank regulation. After she finishes this year in office, the common touch she brings to all her work there will be missed.