WASHINGTON -- Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that President Barack Obama should use his executive authority to reform gun laws, something that former President Bill Clinton has already shown is possible.
McCarthy, a fervent gun control advocate who came to Congress in 1997 after her husband was killed in the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting massacre, said it is "frustrating" that Obama isn't calling for gun safety legislation after last week's shootings in Aurora, Colo. But she said she can understand that he's focused on more pressing matters, such as the economy and getting re-elected.
"He's looking at the bigger picture," McCarthy told The Huffington Post. "I do believe, and I hope in my soul because I think he's a good person, I do believe that he believes in safety and the health of this nation. I do believe that he will do something."
The issue of gun control is at a virtual standstill in Congress, and the White House has signaled that Obama won't use his bully pulpit to push for gun safety legislation anytime soon. But McCarthy said she suspects the president may have his eye on a different route to reining in gun laws.
"I personally think that he is going to be looking at what he can do on the books, what he can do by executive order, what he can do without having to come to Congress," McCarthy said. "He's able to do something."
The New York lawmaker noted that Clinton used his executive authority to respond to the 1997 shootings at the Empire State Building. In that incident, a 69-year-old Palestinian teacher shot one person and wounded six others before taking his own life. McCarthy said she called Clinton after that attack and asked him what he was going to do about it.
"What they did was ban immigrants from being allowed to be able to buy a gun. And he did that by an executive order," McCarthy said. The Obama administration, she continued, has "a limitation on what they can do, but I'm hoping they'll look on the books and see what they can do. I think that's fair."
A White House spokesman on background wouldn't say either way if the administration is looking at ways to lean on executive authority to reform gun laws in response to the Colorado shootings. Instead, the spokesman deferred to recent comments by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about Obama being focused on enforcing "existing law."
A Justice Department spokeswoman also declined to comment, but provided materials that highlight the administration's past executive actions aimed at "keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and others who are prohibited by law from having them, while respecting and protecting the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens."
According to the materials, the administration has taken executive actions to improve the quality of information in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, to begin a new process of recording information about the relationship between perpetrators and victims in certain misdemeanors, and to provide grants to prioritize identification and submission of mental health records for persons prohibited from possessing a firearm for that reason.
Regardless of what Obama may be able to do unilaterally on gun control, any major reforms to gun laws will have to come through Congress. And McCarthy said that won't happen until lawmakers are ready to stand up to the NRA, arguably the most powerful lobby in Washington.
"I would never overestimate the power of the NRA," McCarthy said. "They can bring money in."
McCarthy was one of just four lawmakers who held a press conference Tuesday urging action on gun control in response to the Colorado shootings. The NRA frequently came up as a major obstacle to getting any type of gun safety legislation passed.
"We've got to let the NRA and their allies in Congress understand that we don't want to allow for the circumstances that can end in the kind of violence, the kind of murder and pain, that erupted that day" in Aurora, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the author of legislation to ban high-capacity gun magazines. "We cannot let the NRA co-opt the conscience of our country."
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), whose district is next to Aurora, pushed back on the argument that gun control won't prevent dangerous people from getting guns and doing damage.
"You might not be able to stop a person from coming into a theater with a gun and shooting people. But you sure as heck can stop someone from coming in and shooting 71 people out of 200 in a minute and a half," DeGette said. "You certainly could do that if you banned high-capacity ammunition cartridges. And that's what we need to do."
McCarthy told reporters at the press event that the NRA "does intimidate many, many members," and afterward, she said lawmakers give too much credit to the NRA. Asked if she thinks Congress is just plain "chicken" when it comes to crossing the gun lobby, she said plainly, "Yes."
An NRA spokeswoman declined to comment on the group's perceived stronghold on Congress.
"NRA is not doing interviews. We believe that now is the time for families to grieve and for the community to heal. There will be an appropriate time down the road to engage in political and policy discussions," NRA spokeswoman Stephanie Samford said in a statement.