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Opinion: A mass shooting on a train killed her husband and injured her son. New York’s subway shooting brings back painful memories and a call for action


Now retired in Florida, McCarthy told CNN Opinion for those like her, whose lives have been touched by gun violence, each new senseless shooting brings up haunting memories of their own trauma, transporting them back to their personal tragedy.

All day, McCarthy monitored news of the shooting; she couldn’t not watch. The shooting spree echoed resonantly of the shooting on the Long Island Railroad that changed her life forever, with the victims — much like her late husband — unable to flee from the gunman who targeted them until the train pulled into a station.

Her particular focus while serving in the House of Representatives was trying to ban high-power automatic firearms that are responsible for so many mass casualty events in the United States.
Although she didn’t succeed in that quest, McCarthy hasn’t lost hope for gun reform. She said the movement has had some small wins in the past several years, and praised President Joe Biden’s announcement this week tightening restrictions on the sale of “ghost guns,” including requiring serial numbers on the components parts so the eventual firearm can be traced.
She also noted the settlement obtained by Sandy Hook families against the manufacturer of the AR-15 style rifle used to kill 20 elementary school students and six adults.
McCarthy left the House in 2015, after serving for 18 years representing New York’s 4th congressional district, which covers parts of Long Island. And, coincidentally, she was born in Brooklyn, the borough where Tuesday’s mass shooting took place.

Now 78, she lives in retirement in Fort Myers, Florida, and continues to battle the cancer that ended her political career.

The great debate on gun violence

“They had me in hospice last year, and I refused to die, so I’m still going. Now I’m in palliative care, but I’m beating every expectation,” she said. “I’m stubborn Irish; what can I tell you? My friends keep saying, you’re probably going to be around after they’re not around. That’s certainly my goal.”

Despite retiring, McCarthy still has pointed and poignant views on the shooting that changed her life, and the gun violence that continues to be a scourge in cities and towns across the United States. She offered her thoughts on the Brooklyn shooting to CNN Opinion editor Stephanie Griffith.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: All mass shootings are terrible, but there’s something about being trapped in an enclosed, moving train car that has a particular horror about it. Can you talk about that?

McCarthy: Many of the victims of the Long Island Railroad train that were injured, hurt, lost a loved one, that’s what they talked about; that there was no place to go, no place to run. For those people [on Tuesday] able to get out, and yet to see [others] lying on the floor from the smoke, injuries, the blood — terrible. Absolutely terrible. They won’t forget that.

People think the pain goes away; it doesn’t heal. I mean, we certainly go on with our lives. But my son still needs medical care. People I know who have been shot are still under medical care. Everyone you saw lying on that platform — how many of them don’t have insurance? How many will be possibly paralyzed? Or have head injuries?

CNN: You lost a husband to this kind of violence. You very nearly lost your son to this violence. It must be re-traumatizing for you to see these kinds of events when they occur.

Carolyn McCarthy and her late husband Dennis in the early 1990s.

McCarthy: When I first got on the news, I was shocked to hear what was happening. It definitely brings you back to that second. Unfortunately, I think that’s what happens to anyone who’s gone through any kind of gun violence.

It’s also very frustrating for me or for anyone who’s trying to change gun laws. [In Congress,] I was known as the “Gun Lady.” Unfortunately, especially during these seven or eight years, we’ve seen gun violence increase again.
I’m in Florida now and what did those young people in Parkland do? (She was referring to the South Florida community where a February 2018 high school shooting took place.) Getting something done with guns is not something that’s easy to do. But these kids did it.

And that’s what we need: We need other people, more voices, because I’m not the only one. New voices are what need to be heard, and, unfortunately, we have an awful lot of people on a daily basis that go through what my son and the other victims of the Long Island Railroad went through.

CNN: I’m listening to you talk about having been called the “Gun Lady,” and saying it’s time for new voices to come to the forefront because you’ve been in the trenches for so long. Are you a little bit disillusioned about your experience trying to fight that battle?

McCarthy: Oh, no. Absolutely not. I left Congress because I was ill with cancer, but I always felt I would live long enough to see gun violence being dealt with. And over the last couple of years, there have been minor wins, but a win is a win. More and more people are realizing we’re not taking away your right to own a gun, but, yes, there are restrictions that can save lives.

My friends would always say, “Listen, why do you always have to swim upstream? Why do you keep fighting?” But voices like mine back then, and voices today, they need to be heard.

I would still fight for the assault weapons ban. I would still fight for the large magazines not to be [available to] the everyday person.

Former US Rep. Carolyn McCarthy passes by a display of assault weapons during a news conference January 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

But the NRA, they’ve lost a little bit of power. And there are many, many gun owners now that are starting to say, wait a minute, background checks are OK. Everybody should have a background check. So we’re winning on that front.

CNN: You mentioned the Parkland kids a little while ago.

McCarthy: I do believe it’s up to the young people. They’re going to be in the forefront of making a difference in the future. I’ve always been saying we need to do more on the educational issue, to reach out to the kids, whether they’re being abused at home, maybe they’re being bullied. These are things that I worked with, and I know there are an awful lot of other people working toward that still, to this day.

CNN: Even though people have concealed guns, and the gun lobby keeps chugging away, you still sound hopeful about the areas of progress in the fight against gun violence.

McCarthy: Just this past week, when the president was talking about things he could be doing to reduce gun violence, I thought, “At last, somebody is doing something.” And, of course, I thought about the parents making a difference by suing the [gun] manufacturers. I tried doing that, but nobody would listen to me back then.

There are steps, small little steps even down here in Florida. So I mean, yes, little by little.

In New York, everybody expects something like this to happen. I don’t. I think New York is very well protected. But, again, these things can happen anywhere. As the president said, he’s going to have the manufacturers put serial numbers on [ghost gun kits], so they can be traced.

CNN: Do you view the increasing gun violence we are seeing now as a result of some of the isolation people experienced during the pandemic?

McCarthy: I think that’s part of it. I’m in my late 70s. I know what it did to me. Isolation was something I was fairly used to from being ill so many times. But a lot of people just didn’t know how to deal with it, and that can throw you mentally off.

[To be clear, gun violence] is in every kind of community. They always thought it was just in underserved communities. Not true. It can happen anywhere, and I’ve said, it’s like cancer. It will grow, and it will keep growing in every part of this country.

So, it’s going to hit home for a lot more people, unfortunately, until we actually turn this around. And if the president has his way, he’ll get, hopefully, another step forward to having sensible gun solutions out there. And he can do it without a vote. Because we wouldn’t be able to pass it in Congress or the Senate today if we tried. That’s the very sad part.



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