Policy Today magazine cover
May/June, 2006

PT talks to Carolyn McCarthy, U.S. Congresswoman from Long Island, New York, about the spread of gun violence in America, the political minefield of gun legislation and how to best frame the debate.

PT: You've been exceptionally active on gun control issues during your time in Congress. Could you start by characterizing the parameters of the discussion on Capitol Hill today?

McCarthy: There is no debate. I think I'm actually the only one that gets up on the floor every week to discuss the level of gun violence in the country. Democrats and Republicans alike don't want to go near the issue. They're afraid that if they bring up anything that has to do with gun safety, the NRA will come after them.

PT: But is gun safety really the issue? Doesn't everyone on both sides of the aisle agree that there should be safety measures?

McCarthy: Well, it's a shame, because the NRA puts out a lot of false information about what some of us are trying to do as far as the debate goes. Here's a perfect example: When the assault weapons ban expired last September during the presidential elections, certainly John Kerry talked about how we needed to keep the bill, and so did George W. Bush, but Congress wouldn't even bring up the debate. That's what the problem is; right now, Congress is more intent on protecting the gun industry than even discussing sensible gun safety legislation.

There was a committee hearing last week on making sure that the states wouldn't be able to sue gun dealers. They're passing a bill—HR 5005—which will keep law enforcement agencies from sharing ballistic evidence. Mayor Bloomberg said that it was a "God awful bill." That's mainly because our largest cities, like New York, are having serious problems. But when you have a bill like this being passed—and it's going to be passed, believe me it will—it takes away the ability of our police officers to trace the guns that are used in crimes.

PT: The issue seems invariably framed within the context of Second Amendment rights. Doesn't this—the prevalence of gun violence in our urban centers and the existence of local control laws—indicate that our federal model may offer at least a partial solution to the dilemma?

McCarthy: There has been a recent legislative trend to cut out liability for gun dealers and manufacturers for guns used in homicides and accidents. This new bill is just a follow-through on that trend. It will protect about one percent of gun dealers that sell illegal guns, and they're responsible for about 57% of the guns used in crimes. Most of those crimes are in our urban areas, but I live in Nassau county—a very nice area—and we're seeing an influx of guns even there. The point is that the guns aren't being bought and sold in New York. It's a little discouraging, but I know Mayor Bloomberg is going to hold a conference next week with mayors from across the country to discuss what's working and how they can protect their citizens from illegal guns out there. Maybe they can spark the debate.

PT: There seems to be an issue of specificity here when we're talking about federal vs. local laws regarding gun control. Don't the citizens of rural Wyoming have different interests than those of urban New York or San Francisco?

McCarthy: Well, I would counteract that by saying that states—New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, for example—have good, strong gun safety laws. And yet, the guns are coming in from other states that have none. So, the states aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing, and that's basically why you need federal requirements. It's certainly important because it's an interstate commerce issue as well. In a sense, you're absolutely right; the states could certainly take care of it. But they aren't.

PT: So, what is the most effective, logical perspective from which to view and solve the issue?

McCarthy: What we need to do is change the debate. We need to be discussing what gun violence is costing this country each year in health care. The Center for Disease Control is no longer allowed to give that information out. The CDC is supposed to look at situations that are costing lives and money in health care, and it comes up with solutions. But they're not allowed to talk about solutions to the epidemic of gun violence in this country. That was stopped years ago. So we've been looking on our own for outside information from hospitals and physicians, and it comes out to billions of dollars per year spent on health care. That's another reason why you need federal legislation on the issue.

PT: How do you reignite the debate at the national level if it's such a dangerous subject for legislators wary of raising the NRA's ire?

McCarthy: Here we are dealing with terrorists. We've been told by our government that there are terrorists among us in this country. And although they're on a terrorist watch list and can't get on a plane, they can purchase a gun anywhere they want to. Even the 9/11 commission came up with information basically saying that with the expiration of the assault weapons ban, terrorists will now be able to go out and buy these assault weapons. Why don't we see any legislation under homeland security that deals with the gun issue?

I know that gun control isn't a top issue these days, but it should be. Gun violence is no longer an issue confined to the big cities, because it has infiltrated our suburbs as well. The judiciary committee recently asked to look at the NICS bill, which passed in the House a couple years ago, again. Here's the problem for me: they'll have a hearing, they'll probably approve of my bill and it'll probably come up on the floor, but I can bet you dollars to donuts that they'll mix it in with this other piece of legislation that the NRA is pushing. If that happens, I probably won't be able to vote for my own bill. That can make it a little frustrating on my end, but it's going to pass. That's the way we do business here, which I never could understand.

PT: Congresswoman, thank you for your time.

Carolyn McCarthy represents New York's 4th Congressional District in Long Island. She serves on the Education and Workforce Committee, and the Financial Services Committee.