President Obama spoke eloquently Wednesday night about the need for greater civility in our political discourse. But he continued to avoid calling for sane limits on gun sales in America. True, guns don't kill people; there are more than 280 million weapons in civilian hands in America. But sane and crazy people wielding semi-automatics with 31-bullet clips do kill people. And Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat from Long Island, knows that all too well.
For McCarthy, this has been a particularly painful week. She was home alone on Long Island 18 years ago when Colin Ferguson boarded the Long Island Rail Road. As the train was pulling into the Merillon Ave. station, he opened fire on the trapped commuters - managing to get off two clips. He was reloading when passengers tackled him and pinned him down until the police arrived. At the end of his killing spree, six people were dead, among them McCarthy's husband, Dennis; 19 were wounded, including her only son, Kevin.
Then a registered Republican who had never paid much attention to politics, McCarthy began advocating for gun control as fiercely as she fought for her son's recovery. Three years later, after Kevin recovered, she ran for Congress as a Democrat and was narrowly elected.
She has been campaigning ever since for saner guns laws.
"It gets very frustrating," she told me Tuesday. "Sometimes I feel that we're going backwards."
She sees eerie parallels between the 1993 massacre that changed her life and the tragedy in Arizona. The victims in both attacks were trapped in spaces from which flight was difficult; the shooters in both assaults used large capacity clips; and both times, bystanders finally subdued the shooter after six people had been killed and more than a dozen wounded.
And after it was over, people who knew the shooters were astonished that these obviously disturbed men had not been forced to get psychiatric care, and that these lunatics had been able to legally buy semi-automatic weapons with multiple clips.
Nine months after the LIRR attack, Congress, with then-President Bill Clinton's support, banned assault weapons, as well as the large capacity clips that Ferguson used, and restricted civilians to owning 10 rounds of ammunition, more than enough to kill a deer or an intruder - hell, even a gang of intruders.
But in 2004, then-President George W. Bush permitted the 10-year bill to expire, and maniacs like Jared Lee Loughner were able to buy not only a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol for roughly $600, but also an unlimited number of high-capacity clips containing 31-plus bullets each.
Will the law return to its more sane, pre-2004 state? Advocates like McCarthy have few illusions about the art of the politically possible.
"In some ways, we are definitely moving backwards," agrees Bryan Miller, a New Jersey-based gun control advocate who is project director of Cease-Fire New Jersey. And President Obama has been of "no help," he complains. Obama fears being labeled "anti-gun," a charge that helped sink Al Gore's presidential prospects.
Aided and abetted by the Supreme Court, gun-loving Americans can now carry pistols on Amtrak trains and in national parks. In Arizona and two other states, they can carry concealed weapons into stores, bars and nurseries.
Some states have acted. In New York, New Jersey and California, the required background check to buy a gun is more than the pro-forma affair it has become in places like Arizona. Rejected by the Army for using drugs, and expelled from his community college for his erratic behavior, "Jared Lee Loughner would never have been permitted to buy that gun in either New York or New Jersey," Miller asserts.
While federal law has barred the sale of guns to anyone declared mentally unfit since 1968, the provision has turned out to be almost impossible to enforce. First, a court must decide if a person is mentally unfit - a high bar. Second, the states, which are supposed to provide an FBI database with mental health records, have been lax in doing so. Plus, a Ferguson or Loughner can always circumvent the limits by buying a gun illegally or from an unlicensed - or unprincipled - dealer at a gun show.
McCarthy must now negotiate with newly minted House Speaker John Boehner over what his Republican colleagues will accept. She's tired of introducing measures that go nowhere.
Limiting the size of magazines and the types of weapons civilians can own is a sensible compromise that smacks of the "civility" President Obama urges, but - so far, anyway - lacks the political guts to wholeheartedly endorse.