It is a steamy July day on Capitol Hill -- much too hot for such sports. But Carolyn McCarthy can't help noticing that the congressmen on the television screen behind her desk are playing games anyway.

"They want to make you believe we're working," says the refreshingly frank representative from Long Island. She turns her chair to monitor the activity on the floor of the House and adds dismissively, "and we're not."

McCarthy hovers somewhere between disappointment and dismay at the way many of her colleagues have played their games with the issue closest to her heart: gun violence. It's not the heat that bothers her this morning, it's the hypocrisy.

This was the season -- the post-Columbine season -- when protecting schoolchildren was catapulted to the top of the agenda. But what has Congress done to prove it cares?

Ah, yes, there was a bill allowing schools to post the Ten Commandments. Another bill making it harder for a teenager to have an adult accompany her across state lines for an abortion. There was a vote expressing disapproval of violent entertainment. And don't forget the bill to study a Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.

Something was missing on this scoreboard of Trivial Pursuits: gun control.

"But to me it is not a game. It's life and death," says the earnest widow with the broad Long Island accent who prides herself on being a citizen-politician. When this former nurse says that the personal is political, she isn't talking about scandals or stained Gap dresses. She's talking about victims and violence.

In 1993, a madman pulled out a semiautomatic pistol in a commuter train. He shot 25 passengers, killing McCarthy's husband, seriously wounding her son and eventually launching her into Congress with a cause.

Now, this was the season when the odds were on gun control. Parents still reeling from the Littleton massacre were demanding "something." The NRA was on the defensive.

A modest bill including her amendment to close some loopholes in gun show sales had a fair shot -- if you will excuse the expression -- at passage. But then came a delay just long enough for the NRA to remobilize. In came the e-mails, the telephone calls, the inflammatory ads accusing her of the "gun-hater's rape of the Second Amendment."

By the time school let out, many in the House figured that parents' attention had gone on vacation. Late one June night, flanked by female House members, McCarthy delivered an emotional last-ditch speech describing the promise she made to her son and husband to do "anything that I could to prevent one family from going through what I have gone through."

When it was over, her colleagues applauded her and then voted against her. After fancy legislative footwork, the gun control issue collapsed again. You could hear the raised expectations hitting the floor.

The "sports announcers" of this game are now saying that even the Democrats would rather have gun control as a campaign issue than as a reality. Last year's soccer mom is next year's gun control mom. When McCarthy goes home weekends, she says, "I go to the supermarket and the beauty parlor and the dry cleaner, and the mothers tell me, `I'm afraid to send my kids to school.' "

But for the woman who was once a Republican, this isn't an issue of Democrats vs. Republicans or men vs. women: It's the NRA vs. common sense. "I didn't lose to my colleagues. I lost to the NRA," she says.

McCarthy doesn't believe that gun control is the whole answer to juvenile violence. The two Columbine killers were, she emphasizes, suicidal. Kids need more help. But guns are an easy and lethal ingredient in the cocktail of teenage despair.

"We can't save every kid. But around here," she says, gesturing at the television monitor, "everybody gives up before they even try."

There is a slim chance that modest restrictions on firearms passed by the Senate will make it through the conference committee this summer. But the questions that she asks opponents now are, "How do you respond to American families if there is another shooting? How do you look them in the eye and say we did nothing?"

Make no mistake, says the woman who takes this issue very personally, the one thing that will bring gun control back is the possibility -- no, the probability -- of another tragedy.

"Isn't that ghoulish?" she asks, shaking her head. "Isn't that a shame?"

Shame. That's the name of this game.

(C) 1999, The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.