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“We Have to Do Something”: Rep. Carolyn McCarthy on the Growing Push for Gun Control After Newtown

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Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York lost her husband 19 years ago in the Long Island Rail Road massacre that killed six people. She has since become a leading advocate for gun control. With President Obama expected to announce that Vice President Joe Biden will head a new interagency task force on gun violence — and pro-gun politicians and lobbies largely silent five days after the Newtown massacre — we ask Rep. McCarthy if there has been a seismic shift that could lead to gun control legislation. We also talk to her about how the so-called fiscal cliff could impact funding for mental health services, which advocates say could help prevent future massacres. “I do see a shift. I see the American peoples questioning now a lot of the things that have not been done,” McCarthy says. “We’ve gone through too many of these shootings. … This time, I would not hold my voice.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryDec 17, 2012Debate: After Newtown, Will Nation’s Worst-Ever Grade School Shooting Spur Tougher Gun Control?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Five days after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that took the lives of 20 children and six staff members, funerals for the victims continue. On Tuesday, two more students killed in the attack were laid to rest: Jessica Rekos and James Mattioli. Both were just six years old.

President Barack Obama is expected to announce today that Vice President Joe Biden will head a new interagency task force to come up with new policies to address gun violence. But the White House says Obama will not announce any major policy decisions on guns today.

The debate launched by the massacre over gun control legislation continues to unfold. In its first official statement since Friday’s attack, the National Rifle Association said Tuesday that it was, quote, “shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the murders” and that it is, quote, “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” The group reactivated its Facebook account, which it had shut down after the shooting, and announced a press conference for Friday.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Democratic Congressmember Carolyn McCarthy of New York. Her husband was killed and her son severely injured 19 years ago in the 1993 mass shooting on a Long Island Rail Road train that killed six. She has long fought to pass gun control legislation. Congressmember McCarthy joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Congressmember McCarthy. It seems like we just had you on in the wake of another massacre. And I wanted to ask if you feel at this point that there is a seismic shift, something we didn’t see after your husband was killed or even after Oregon a few days ago or after Aurora, in the possibility of meaningful gun control legislation. And what would you like to see that look like?

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: Well, I do see a shift. I see the American peoples questioning now a lot of the things that have not been done. So I think that we have a good chance. Obviously, we’re all waiting to see what the NRA is going to be offering on Friday. I’m hoping—and I’ve always reached out to them to say we need to work together. You know, the interests of what we have is gun safety and trying to make sure that people aren’t killed. So we’ll wait until Friday to see what they have to say. But I have to say, here in Congress, trying to reach out and talk to a number of my Republican friends, they’re not committing on anything yet. So, I asked if anybody is talking about it on their side of the aisle, and apparently one or two members are, but they have not come forward yet. I hope that in the coming days and weeks we will start to see some more Republicans come join us.

AMY GOODMAN: You had quite a reaction, Congressmember McCarthy, after White House spokesperson Jay Carney, right after the massacre, said this.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: There is, I’m sure—will be, rather, a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don’t think today is that day.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Congressmember McCarthy?

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: I’ll be honest with you. I was absolutely furious. As soon as that press conference was over, I called the White House. Listen, we’ve gone through too many of these shootings. And everybody says, “You can’t say anything. You can’t say anything.” Well, you know, we should have been talking about this going all the way back from Columbine. We should have been talking about this in the last few years, going with Gabby Giffords. I thought for sure that our colleagues would see this as what it is, that there are too many guns out on—out on the streets. And the ones we’re after, if you look at all the shootings that we’ve had lately, are the assault-weapons-type guns and certainly the large magazine clips. So, this time, I would not hold my voice. This time, I said, “No, I will go out, and I will start speaking.”

And I’m glad to see that the White House, and I’m very proud that the president is coming out and saying that we’re going to do something meaningfully. The commission with Joe Biden, I think, is excellent, because there are other things that we can do. You know, down here for the last couple years, we have slashed the budget, especially for those programs that are in our districts that have to do with mental health, the after-school programs that help some of our troubled children. So, there are things that we can do on the Education Committee.

By the way, I want to say that the school in Connecticut did everything right. Everything was right. They followed the security plan to the T. The only thing that we saw that possibly could have been improved was the shattered glass on the door on—where, unfortunately, the killer got in. And I’m sure that will be out there to be fixed soon. But I sit on the Education Committee. And over the years, especially after Columbine, we did put these recommendations out to our schools. And I will say that the majority of schools are following them.

AMY GOODMAN: On Meet the Press on Sunday, the author of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, your colleague, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, announced she’ll introduce a bill to reform gun ownership standards in the next Congress.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I’m going to introduce in the Senate, and the same bill will be introduced in the House, a bill to ban assault weapons. It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession, not retroactively, but prospectively. And it will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than 10 bullets. So there will be a bill. We’ve been working on it now for a year. We’ve tried to take my bill from ’94 to 2004 and perfect it. We believe we have. We exempt over 900 specific weapons that will not be—fall under the bill.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Dianne Feinstein. And I’m just wondering, Congressmember Carolyn McCarthy, if this is old thinking in a new time. Yes, she’s been pushing for an assault weapons ban and, in an NRA-dominated Congress, has not been able to get it passed. But now, when the country seems to be experiencing a seismic shift, people speaking out perhaps in the silence of the NRA and the pro-gun politicians, 900 exceptions?

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: Well, I mean, if you really look at some of the guns—and I know for a fact that her staff, in working with judiciary, they’ve been looking at all these guns. You have to understand, some of these guns, especially the ones that are semi-automatic, cannot be fitted to be able to take these large-capacity clips. This bill is really quite different from the one that was passed in 1994. So, it’s going to be more of a modernized, so I don’t even like the idea of saying it’s a renewal. This is an introduction of a bill that has caught up to the times.

You have to remember something, Amy. When we passed that bill—and I was not in Congress at that time—I was an activist at that time, and I was down here basically lobbying the members of Congress and the senators. What we need to do is to make sure that we are accommodating the hunters, the target shooters, to make sure that they can continue with their sport. Now, some might not approve of that, but that is the way we are as a country. We also have to protect the Constitution, because we don’t want to have a constitutional—excuse me—challenge in—at the Supreme Court. So with that being said, I think that when the members actually start to see what the bill is, I think they’ll be agreeable that the time has come.

I have always believed that there is no reason in the world that someone should be able to have the large-capacity clips. That was what was used on the Long Island Rail Road back in 1993. And we’ve seen those, unfortunately. We’re now calling them—I call them, anyhow, “assault clips,” because that’s what they are. They’re made for military. They’re made for our men and women in the fighting over in Afghanistan, and they’ve been used in wars. One of the problems that we’re probably going to see in the future, and we’re tried to stop that in this bill, is when even we passed the assault weapons bill going back in 1994, the manufacturers found ways around it by just adding certain pieces to the gun so they could make it, an automatic, semi-automatic with the large-capacity clips. That is our goal. And I do believe that we have a much better chance this time to get it passed. But let’s not fool anybody. It’s going to be extremely difficult, and it will be extremely difficult. But I think this time, this shooting, these children, we have to do something.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Congressmember McCarthy, this is Nermeen Shaikh with Amy Goodman. I wanted to ask you about another comment that was made in the wake of the Newtown mass shooting. This is Republican Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who proposed having school officials carry guns. He was asked about this proposal on WTOP Radio.

GOV. BOB McDONNELL: I know there’s been a knee-jerk reaction against that. I think there should at least be a discussion of that. If—if people were armed, not just the police officer but other official—school officials, that were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would have been an opportunity to stop aggressors coming into the school. So I think that’s a—that’s a reasonable discussion that ought to be had.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Congressmember McCarthy, your comments on what the Virginia governor said?

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: Alright, let’s—let’s take this into context. We have passed legislation to help our schools to be the safest they can be. They followed the lockdown procedure. Who are you going to assign to be able to have a gun? They’re supposed to be locked behind locked doors, not allow anybody in. If the principal had had a gun and was charging the shooter, and he has a automatic with large-capacity clips, the outcome would have not been the same. You know, I know that they’re talking about having armed guards. Some of our schools actually do have armed guards. But with that being said, adding more guns to the chaos is not going to help.

I’ve talked to many police officers around this country, mainly because that was what was said to me by the NRA after the shooting on the Long Island Rail Road: If somebody on that train would have had a gun, Colin Ferguson wouldn’t have been able to kill as many and wound as many people as he did. The fact is, Colin Ferguson only had magazines that had 15 bullets in it, and it was when he was on his second and third clip that several people tackled him. And by the way, that’s also what happened at the shooting with Gabby Giffords in Arizona. So, obviously, the size of how many bullets are in a gun does make a difference.

And by the way, for those that are hunters and those that are sportsmen, they know darn well each of their states already have regulations. In other words, when they go duck hunting or deer hunting, there are only so many bullets they’re allowed to have. Are we going to give animals a better chance of surviving than we as human beings?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Congressmember McCarthy, I want to play a comment from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who’s a lifetime member of the NRA. After the Newtown shooting, he said Monday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that it’s, quote, “time to move beyond rhetoric” on gun control. And President Obama called Senator Manchin, a Democrat, on Tuesday to talk about this issue of gun control.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN: I can honestly say, I’ve gone deer hunting, just came with my family from deer hunting. I’ve never had more than three shells in a clip. Sometimes you don’t get more than one shot anyway at a deer. You know, just common sense. It’s time—it’s time to move beyond rhetoric. We need to sit down and have a commonsense discussion and move in a reasonable way.

Anyone saying they don’t want to talk and sit down and have that type of dialogue is wrong. Anybody that says that when Chuck Schumer says we shouldn’t have more than 10 rounds in a clip, you know, they would be wrong to say that shouldn’t be on the table. Everything should be on the table.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. In a 2010 campaign ad, Manchin famously used a rifle to shoot a piece of cap-and-trade climate control legislation. This is a clip.

GOV. JOE MANCHIN: I’m Joe Manchin. I approve this ad, because I’ll always defend West Virginia. As your senator, I’ll protect our Second Amendment rights. That’s why the NRA endorsed me. I’ll take on Washington and this administration to get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets. I’ll cut federal spending, and I’ll repeal the bad parts of “Obamacare.” I sued EPA, and I’ll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill, 'cause it's bad for West Virginia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Joe Manchin. Representative McCarthy, can you comment on his change in position after this mass shooting?

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: Well, I think that, certainly, he’s someone that is a very deep thinker, and I also know that there are an awful lot of NRA members that are thinking along those lines. We have always offered the NRA to come sit down with us. I have worked with a bill on them going back after the Virginia Tech shooting, and we got a bill passed, and that was the instant background check system, to improve it. There were a lot of things that we found out after Virginia Tech, that the shooter, Cho, at that time had been mentally adjudicated. That already disqualified him from being able to buy a gun, but unfortunately his name was not in the file. What we found out is the majority of states do not keep those files, and they do not put them into the computer system. We passed that bill here in the House, we got it through on the Senate, and it was signed by President Bush during that time.

And I do believe that the president, when he put out what he’s going to be looking at, that’s going to be part of it, because the—it’s a good program. The only thing, there is not enough money to do what needs to be done. You know, just because a bill gets passed doesn’t mean that it’s going to be enacted in the way myself and many others intended it to be.

So, I mean, there are a lot of things that we can do. I believe the NRA should come and sit down and talk to us. There—you know, when something like this happens, there are many, many good people in this country, millions of good people in this country, that own guns, that—because they love the sport of hunting. They loved skeet shooting. These are things that we need to take into mind. I’m from the New York area. I had to look into, you know, this fascination with guns. And I’m not worried about them. I’m worried about those that fall into the cracks.

And one of the biggest problems that we have is closing the gun show loophole. It’s not even a loophole. It’s just a wide open area where somebody can go in. You have plenty of federal licensed dealers there. But those that have a criminal intent, they will go to the tables, where they’ll say, even—because there’s been an awful lot of undercover throughout the country on trying to find out the solutions to these problems. And what we found is, you can go up to a table, a private buyer, and you can buy any kind of gun you want and not go through a background check. Now, number one, it’s not fair to the legitimate business owners that are following the law. And—but you have these people, and a lot of them maybe just want to sell some of the guns that they have too many of, to make a little bit of money. But you know what? Everybody should be going for a background check. Everybody. No one should be exempted from it.

AMY GOODMAN: How is it that there hasn’t even—that until this point, you have not succeeded in getting them to even look at the terrorist watch list in selling guns?

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: Yeah, that one lacks common sense whatsoever. Here we have people on the terrorist watch list. They cannot get onto our airplanes, but yet they’re allowed to go out and buy a gun. I can’t even explain to you where the common sense on that is. The problem here, especially on the House side, is basically, I can introduce the bills, but if they do not get the permission of the speaker of the House, they can’t even go forward. I can’t get a committee hearing. I can’t even have, you know, a discussion about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you talked to Boehner, to House Speaker Boehner?

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: You know, right now, Speaker Boehner and the president are trying to deal out with the fiscal cliff. And I’m hoping that—we all hope that we can work out an agreement, because I don’t want to see certainly my constituents ending up paying more taxes come January 1st. So I understand that’s where his priorities are right now. But I will—I’ve had discussions with him in the past, and I will be talking to him soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember McCarthy, I saw you Saturday. It was a day after the shooting. We were both over at MSNBC. And you were talking about your concern around the negotiations around the fiscal cliff on another issue, and that’s the issue of mental illness. In the last 24 hours, for example, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper just announced an $18.5 million plan to expand the state’s mental health services. And right around the same time, there was another mass shooting in Colorado yesterday.


AMY GOODMAN: A man killed three other people. Talk about the fiscal cliff and the issue of mental illness that you’re so concerned about.

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: Well, number one, on dealing with the fiscal cliff, you know, we had very large cuts last year and the year before, so we’ve actually been doing what we need to do to bring down the fiscal cliff. But when it comes to mental health, you know, you have—I spent my life as a nurse before I came here. And there are choices that we have to make. And when you’re making those choices, you have to look at what are the consequences going to be down the road.

So, yes, I happen to agree that there is a lot of waste in the system, and I believe that we need to cut that out. When Secretary Gates was here on the defense side in the Pentagon, they found a lot of money that they can certainly cut out. But to be very honest with you, you know, you have to be careful, because we know—want to make sure that we do not hurt our national defense.

Well, it’s the same thing with mental health and certainly even medical research. We should not be put behind when we’re on the cusp, in my opinion, of coming up with so many cures or at least treating chronic diseases. So, mental health is the same thing. We can find the waste, and we can find the waste, but you don’t take money out of things on what we’re trying to do to make us all a better society, and that includes mental health.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the ideal bill you want to see passed? You said, Congressmember McCarthy, you’re waiting to see what the NRA will say. I mean, it seems amazing that in their silence, for the first time in so long—after other massacres, they weren’t silent—in the wake of their silence, that this vacuum has been filled by massive number of voices for gun control, including those who were pro-gun, right? And the silence of the pro-gun senators. David—David Gregory wasn’t able to get one of the 31 pro-gun senators to speak on his show on Meet the Press on Sunday. It has been filled in, what might be called the silenced majority, I suppose you could say, by all the people who haven’t been heard before. Why wait to hear what the NRA has to say? They are a powerful lobby. First, what do you think they’re going to say? But second, what bill do you want to see? Just list the criterion of a successful gun control bill for you.

REP. CAROLYN McCARTHY: Well, let me clarify something. Yes, I’m waiting to hear what they have to say. That has not stopped me from introducing the bills that I would like to see go forward, closing the gun show loophole, for one; making sure that everybody goes through background checks. Obviously, I have always offered getting rid of the large magazines, the assault magazines that we have out there. Yes, getting rid of some of these assault weapons and semi-assault, so that we can’t have the rapid fire that is out there. We’re not waiting for the NRA. I would just hope that when the NRA comes out and says something, that they’re going to be willing to work with all of us to come to a solution. We have to make sure that our young people, you know, are getting the education that they need. So, there are a lot of bills.

And believe me, in the last several days, many members have introduced legislation. We have been working with Mayor Bloomberg over the last several years, and we’re certainly working with the mayors across this country. And even with that, I have to say, several mayors jumped on to be with Mayor Bloomberg, and they were Republicans. So, I mean, we’re seeing this growth. It’s a dialogue we need to have.

The biggest problem I see down the road—and I speak to my Republican colleagues on the other side of the aisle—silence is something that has always played well here in the House. They will stay silent. They will try to delay, delay, delay, and hopefully the American people will forget what happened last Friday. That has always been their technique. To be honest with you, the NRA has always gone silent after one of these mass shootings. They stay silent, and then they come out and they start meeting with all their members to say, “Stay strong.”

I still believe this time is different. You’re already seeing some pretty high-level Republicans, conservative Republicans, coming out and saying, “It’s time to do something about this. We can no longer tolerate what we saw last week.” And certainly, these funerals of our young children—I mean, is that who we are as Americans? And I would say to those that feel that we’re just after their guns, let me say to you, the government is not going to come knocking down on your door to take your gun. They’re not. I mean, that’s a fact. That’s a lie that’s been put out there for too many years. The Supreme Court has already come down with a decision that a person has a right to own a gun. They also said that the government had the right to protect their citizens and to be able to pass legislation that is for the safety of all.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Carolyn McCarthy, I want to thank you very much for being with you—for joining us. And also, my condolences again on the death of your husband and the maiming of your son in the 1993 mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road train that killed six and wounded so many others, because I am sure that every time another massacre takes place, you relive that as well as take in the pain of the latest massacre, which occurred last week.

And Nermeen, let’s go out of the segment with the voices of Newtown.



NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Tuesday, Andrei Nikitchyuk of Newtown, Connecticut, spoke in Washington at an event organized by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. His eight-year-old son was pulled into a classroom by a teacher and escaped harm at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last week.

ANDREI NIKITCHYUK: I am an immigrant. I have been here for 22 years. And I kind of—I held these beliefs: America has deep history with guns, it’s part of American history; gun owners and people who handle guns, they know how to keep them safe and be responsible; our politicians will do whatever they can to make sure our kids are safe. And, you know, every time something like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora were happening, I would avert my eyes, and I will still think that something will be done. But all those beliefs were shattered on Friday. And now I think we all need to speak up.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrei Nikitchyuk of Newtown, Connecticut, in Washington to speak out for gun control. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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