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.

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • 1981: The Attempted Assassination Of President Ronald Reagan

    on March 30, 1981, President Reagan and three others were shot and wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Reagan's press secretary, Jim Brady, was shot in the head.

  • 1993: The Brady Handgun Violence Act

    The Brady Handgun Violence Act of 1993, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, mandated that federally licensed dealers complete comprehensive background checks on individuals before selling them a gun. The legislation was named for James Brady, who was shot during an attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

  • 1994: The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act

    The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, instituted a ban on 19 kinds of assault weapons, including Uzis and AK-47s. The crime bill also banned the possession of magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition. (An exemption was made for weapons and magazines manufactured prior to the ban.)

  • 2004: Law Banning Magazines Holding More Than Ten Rounds Of Ammunition Expires

    In 2004, ten years after it first became law, Congress allowed a provision banning possession of magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition to expire through a sunset provision. Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke told HuffPost that the expiration of this provision meant that Rep. Gabby Giffords's alleged shooter was able to fire off 20-plus shots without reloading (under the former law he would have had only ten).

  • 2007: The U.S. Court of Appeals For The District Of Columbia Rules In Favor Of Dick Heller

    In 2007 The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled to allow Dick Heller, a licensed District police officer, to keep a handgun in his home in Washington, D.C. Following that ruling, the defendants petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

  • 2008: The NICS Improvement Amendments Act

    Following the deadly shooting at Virginia Tech University, Congress passed legislation to require states provide data on mentally unsound individuals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, with the aim of halting gun purchases by the mentally ill, and others prohibited from possessing firearms. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January of 2008.

  • 2008: Supreme Court Strikes Down D.C. Handgun Ban As Unconstitutional

    In June of 2008, the United States Supreme Court upheld the verdict of a lower court ruling the D.C. handgun ban unconstitutional in the landmark case <em>District of Columbia v. Heller</em>.

  • Gabrielle Giffords And Trayvon Martin Shootings

    Gun control advocates had high hopes that reform efforts would have increased momentum in the wake of two tragic events that rocked the nation. In January of 2011, Jared Loughner opened fire at an event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), killing six and injuring 13, including the congresswoman. Resulting attempts to push gun control legislation <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">proved fruitless</a>, with neither proposal even succeeding in gaining a single GOP co-sponsor. More than a year after that shooting, Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/trayvon-martin" target="_hplink">gunned down</a> by George Zimmerman in an event that some believed would bring increased scrutiny on the nation's Stand Your Ground laws. While there has been increasing discussion over the nature of those statutes, lawmakers were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">quick to concede</a> that they had little faith the event would effectively spur gun control legislation, thanks largely to the National Rifle Association's vast lobbying power. Read more <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/09/trayvon-martin-shooting-gun-debate_n_1413115.html" target="_hplink">here</a>:

  • Colorado Movie Theater Shooting

    In July of 2012, a heavily armed gunman <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/aurora-shooting-movie-theater-batman_n_1688547.html" target="_hplink">opened fire on theatergoers</a> attending a midnight premiere of the final film of the latest Batman trilogy, killing 12 and wounding scores more. The suspect, James Eagan Holmes, allegedly carried out the act with a number of handguns, as well as an AR-15 assault rifle with a 100-round drum magazine. Some lawmakers used the incident, which took place in a state with some of the laxest gun control laws, to bring forth legislation designed to place increased regulations on access to such weapons, but many observers, citing previous experience, were <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/batman-shooting_n_1690547.html" target="_hplink">hesitant to say</a> that they would be able to overcome the power of the National Rifle Association and Washington gun lobby.

  • Sikh Temple Shooting

    On August 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page opened fire on a Sikhs gathered at a temple in Oak Creek, Wis., killing six and wounding four more before turning the gun on himself.