N.Y. Rep. McCarthy: 'We Have To Break The Myth Of The NRA'

Audie Cornish talks to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) about President Obama's new initiatives to curb gun violence. In 1993, her husband was killed and her son gravely injured in a mass shooting on the Long Island Railroad. Since then, McCarthy has become an outspoken advocate for gun control.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. If there is even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try - those words today from President Obama, as he unveiled a far-reaching package of new gun control measures. They fall into two categories: those that require congressional approval, and those that don't.

CORNISH: Among the executive orders, an effort to make it easier for states to contribute information to the nation's background-check system, and a move to require the federal tracing of guns recovered in criminal investigations.

SIEGEL: But the president's most ambitious proposals must go through Congress. Those include requiring criminal background checks on all gun sales, and renewing the federal assault weapons ban. Mr. Obama acknowledged that some of those ideas would be a tough sell, especially in the Republican-controlled House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This will not happen unless the American people demand it. If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors; if hunters and sportsmen; if responsible gun owners; if Americans of every background stand up and say enough, we've suffered too much pain and care too much about our children to allow this continue, then change will - change will come.

CORNISH: If anyone knows how hard it is to change the nation's gun laws, it's Carolyn McCarthy. In 1993, her husband was killed; and her son, gravely injured; in a mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road. When a representative voted to repeal the 1994 assault weapons ban, McCarthy ran against him - and has been in Congress ever since. You'll find her name on a long list of gun control measures that haven't made it out of Congress.

Democratic Congressman McCarthy, of New York, joins me now. Welcome, Congresswoman.

REP. CAROLYN MCCARTHY: Thank you, and thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, there's lots of support - studies have shown, surveys have shown recently - for things like background checks, tightening background checks. And renewing this ban on semiautomatic weapons finds a real divide. Just 55 percent of Americans support such a ban, the Pew Research Center found recently. What are the chances of such a ban seeing the light of day, in Congress?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think that we, you know, have a chance. And I do believe - you know, what the president said this afternoon was it's going to be up to all of us, not those just here, in Congress; but the grass-roots organizations, the people that are answering these poll questions and saying, this is what we want. They have to go to their member of Congress and say, where are you on the gun issue?

And they shouldn't be deterred when they say, well - you know - I'm going to support some stuff. We have to look at this as a whole package, a holistic way of looking at it; getting rid of the large magazine, getting - certainly - rid of the assault weapons, making sure that our schools are safe, making sure that we can deal with those that are mentally ill.

So there's a lot of things to do, but I'd like to remind people that we can get things done, here in Washington. It was a very, very tough fight when President Clinton got the assault weapons bill and the Brady Bill passed back in 1994. I was involved in that. I was not a member of Congress, but we came down here and we lobbied, and we fought.

CORNISH: But at the same time, Congresswoman, I want to say - in that recent study, there was an activism gap among everyday voters. People who support gun rights, they actually called their members of Congress, donated money to related causes. People who support gun control were far less active. Why do you think that is?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think that is because they kind of trust us to do - get it done. And then they're always surprised when we - when they hear that they - we haven't gotten anything done. I think it's a little bit different this time, too. You know, everytime we've tried before, we never had, you know, a president behind us, leading the way.

CORNISH: Has it become more difficult as - for advocates, such as yourself - as there are fewer and fewer moderates, especially Democrats from pro-gun districts who might have supported something like this in the past?

MCCARTHY: Well, I'm definitely - I'm a moderate Democrat. And we do, actually, have moderate conservatives; and we also have moderate Democrats, you know, that come from gun states.

CORNISH: But it's been a dwindling caucus, in recent years, right?

MCCARTHY: It has been a dwindling caucus but, you know, there are a lot of members here in Congress - on the right side, and on the left side - that are very frustrated that, you know, we are not looking at serious things that can help our country. I believe many of my colleagues do want to do something. We have to break the myth of the NRA. With them doing that advertisement today on the president and his two daughters, you know, that was basically for their more radical members.

CORNISH: And this is the ad where they called the president an elite hypocrite for allowing his daughters...

MCCARTHY: Exactly.

CORNISH: ...to be protected by armed Secret Service.

MCCARTHY: Absolutely. When you think about the amount of NRA members that believe that we should be doing universal background checks; many of them have come out in support of getting rid of the large magazine clips. We - our group here, in Washington - are going to be meeting with the NRA in supporting hunters - and everybody else, next week. We believe in trying to work with everybody.

And I do believe, as we go forward - and the president certainly is going to go into full campaign mode on bringing this issue to the American people, and have the American people make their calls. You know, shows like - yourself - getting the message out. They need to stand up. They can't count on the next person to call their member of Congress. If they believe in what we're trying to do - which is saving our children, making our communities safer - they have to be able to be active and make that phone call, or send an email or a fax.

CORNISH: Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy of New York, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCCARTHY: Anytime. Thank you very much.

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