Dianne Feinstein heard the shots ring out in San Francisco’s City Hall that day in 1978. She was close enough to smell the gunpowder—so close that she was the first on the scene to discover the lifeless body of Supervisor Harvey Milk. As she reached down to check his pulse, her fingers sunk into a bullet hole. Fifteen years later on the other side of the country, Carolyn McCarthy wasn’t on the scene for the violent act that changed her life forever. Her husband and son were riding the Long Island Rail Road during rush hour when a gunman began to fire a 9 mm pistol. Three minutes and 30 rounds later, her husband had been shot and killed and her son severely wounded.
The political careers of McCarthy, now a congresswoman, and Feinstein, now a senator, were forged in the crucible of gun violence. The assassinations of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone vaulted Feinstein, then the president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, into the mayor’s office. The 1993 mass killings in New York pushed McCarthy out of private life and into the limelight; she ran for Congress three years later and won.
Now, as Congress considers new limits on firearms in the wake of the gruesome killing of 20 elementary-school children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., the two Democrats have emerged as the body’s fiercest advocates of new gun laws. Together, they hope their unique bond and a shifting national consciousness could spur the first significant gun restrictions in almost two decades.
“This is a personal issue. [Feinstein] and I can connect that way,” McCarthy told National Journal. “Over the years, we have talked about it. Every time there is a shooting, it’s just something you remember. It always brings you back to where that moment was. There’s a kinship there.” On the first day of the 113th Congress, McCarthy introduced four separate gun-control measures, including strengthened background checks and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Later this month, she and Feinstein are expected to introduce twin measures to ban assault weapons.
“If any two legislators are equipped to overcome the obstacles and forge a consensus solution on gun safety, it is Dianne and Carolyn,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a gun-control advocate, said in an e-mail. “With both of them, no one can question their motives or accuse them of playing politics in the least.”
Still, sweeping firearm legislation faces long odds, especially in the Republican-controlled House. Speaker John Boehner isn’t expected to take up a bill until after—or if—a bipartisan measure clears the Senate. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said they were awaiting the report of Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on guns. “When that review is complete, we’ll take a look,” Steel said.
Feinstein doesn’t speak much about her encounter with tragedy; she declined an interview request. But she is a veteran of legislative and politicized gun-control wars. As San Francisco’s mayor, Feinstein pushed through a handgun ban in the 1980s and had to face down a recall election, which she won. Then, in 1993, only months into her first Senate term, a gunman killed eight people in a San Francisco office building before taking his own life. Spurred on by the attack, Feinstein as a freshman pushed for the original 1994 assault-weapons ban. The pen that President Clinton used to sign the bill still hangs on her office wall.
Since the measure expired in 2004, McCarthy and Feinstein have tried to revive the issue. But many Democrats, particularly moderates from rural districts, have preferred to table the topic, attributing the party’s 1994 loss of the House, in part, to an overreach on guns. Not Feinstein and McCarthy. “Our movement has no two better and stronger advocates than Representative McCarthy and Senator Feinstein,” said Brian Malte, director of mobilization for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Feinstein and her staff have been retooling a new assault-weapons bill for more than a year—long before the violence in Newtown, or even the mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. And before the November elections, McCarthy approached Jacob Lew, President Obama’s chief of staff, with a warning: She’d be coming after the White House and anyone else who didn’t come aboard the gun-control train in 2013. “She has been relentless when others may have not put it up to the forefront of the national consciousness,” Malte said.
Gun violence shaped other lawmakers’ careers as well. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., was a congressional aide to Rep. Leo Ryan in 1978 and accompanied him on a trip to Jonestown, Guyana, when the delegation came under siege. Ryan was assassinated; Speier was shot five times and left for dead. She still carries two of the bullets in her body. Rep. Ron Barber was an aide in 2011 at the side of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., when a gunman opened fire at a constituent event. Barber was shot twice and wounded. When Giffords resigned, he ran for her seat and won. Both Barber and Speier are vice chairs of the House Democrats’ gun-violence task force.
The power of personal experience was on display this week when Giffords announced she was mounting a new gun-control campaign. Members tend to listen, Barber said, when he tells them about “the kind of damage that extended magazines can do in a short period of time…. In less than 45 seconds, 19 of us were down.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve got a number of members who’ve gone through tragedies,” McCarthy said. Led by her and Feinstein, they are the nucleus of the gun-control movement in Congress. “It’s going to be tough,” she said. “We all mourn, but there’s never been this swell to get things going.”
This article appears in the January 12, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Power of Personal Pain.