U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy has been pushing to crack down on high-powered weapons since her husband was gunned down in a mass murder on the Long Island Rail Road in New York 17 years ago.
She’s trying again, introducing legislation that would ban the ammunition clip used in the Jan. 8 Arizona shooting rampage that left her colleague, fellow Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, fighting for her life, and killed six others.
McCarthy, 67, faces a lonely fight. Polls show the public has grown less supportive of gun restrictions as Americans increasingly worry about the government encroaching on personal freedom. That sentiment, combined with the peril of taking on the gun lobby, dims prospects for legislative curbs.
“As long as I’m in Congress, I’m going to be fighting,” said McCarthy, whose husband’s killing and son’s paralysis in the 1993 incident led her to run for office. “If I give up, who’s going to be speaking for the victims?”
Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, is introducing similar legislation in his chamber.
The bloodshed in Tucson, Arizona, drew more calls to temper political rhetoric than to tighten access to guns. President Barack Obama made one reference to “gun safety laws” when he gave a memorial address on Jan. 12.
In 1994, when Congress adopted a ban on assault weapons, 57 percent of Americans favored controls on gun ownership, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington. Last March, 46 percent held that view. President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans allowed the ban to expire in 2004.
Behind the changing sentiment is a growing concern among Americans that the government has too much power over their lives, pollsters and analysts say.
“There is an increased Tea Party-libertarian sense that big government is bad, and gun control is part of big government,” said Alan Chartock, a professor emeritus of political communication at the State University of New York in Albany.
The shift was most pronounced after Obama’s 2008 election. The percentage of Americans saying it was important to protect gun rights rose to 46 percent in 2010 from 37 percent in 2008.
“People were worried the Democrats would get tough on gun control,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the poll.
‘An Immediate Threat’
Gallup polls found the drop in support for gun control mirrored an increase -- to 46 percent in 2010 from 30 percent in 2003 -- in respondents saying the federal government “poses an immediate threat” to freedom.
Efforts for stricter controls after the shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999 failed because of bipartisan House opposition. After the 2007 Virginia Tech killings, Congress passed legislation to bolster records laws to help states keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill.
With Republicans again holding a House majority, prospects for new laws may be weak.
“We ought to just take a deep breath,” said Republican Buck McKeon of California: “I don’t think that gun control laws are really the answer.”
McCarthy said she plans to lobby Republicans individually to get bipartisan support. So far, 39 Democrats are co-sponsoring her legislation. She doesn’t yet have any House Republicans backing her effort. McCarthy was joined at a news conference in Washington today by several gun-control advocates who vowed to mount a grass-roots campaign for the legislation.
“This is only the beginning,” McCarthy said.
Representative James Moran, a Virginia Democrat who is among the co-sponsors, called McCarthy’s measure “extraordinarily moderate.”
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, with jurisdiction over gun legislation, said at a Jan. 11 Washington event that there will be a push for restrictions “but I don’t know if much will change.”
Even when the Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress the last two years, they didn’t push for legislation. Instead, Congress voted to allow visitors to carry concealed weapons in national parks and Amtrak passengers to carry guns in checked luggage.
Former Representative Vic Fazio of California was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1994 when Republicans took over Congress. He said the Democrats’ support for gun control contributed to their defeat.
“There are voters who otherwise might be available to us who will be easily energized around this one issue,” he said.
Helping to block legislation was the National Rifle Association. Last year, the NRA and other gun rights groups spent $14 million on campaigns and lobbying, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. Gun control groups spent $185,000.
“The NRA has successfully convinced too many Democratic campaign consultants and campaign managers that they shouldn’t talk about guns,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington.
Still, Helmke said the shooting of a lawmaker “changes the dynamic” and Congress may reconsider its opposition to legislation.
‘A Different Track’
Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he would support reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.
Domestic politics “with regard to this are on a different track,” he acknowledged in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s Political Capital with Al Hunt.
Republican Representative Peter King of New York proposed making it illegal to carry a gun within 1,000 feet (about 300 meters) of a federal official at a public gathering, to protect the official and those nearby. He said his office received 500 phone calls in a single day, 99 percent against his plan.
“The mood has definitely changed against any kind of gun regulation,” King said. “There are parts of the country where guns are an absolute extension of their way of life.”
Said NRA spokeswoman Alexa Fritts, “At this time anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate.”
Not Just Prayers
McCarthy wants to offer more than prayers.
The former nurse lobbied for the 1994 assault weapons ban after the death of her husband, Dennis, and wounding of her son, Kevin. Two years later, McCarthy, then a Republican, ran for Congress after her representative, Republican Daniel Frisa, voted to repeal the ban. Discouraged from challenging him in a primary, she campaigned as a Democrat and defeated him.
“I’ve been fighting this for over 16 years,” McCarthy, now a registered Democrat, said. “I’m not going to give up.”