Lucy McBath stared at the television, watching President Donald Trump stun lawmakers.
“Take the guns first, go through due process second,” the President said in a free-wheeling roundtable with lawmakers last February where he also told senators, “You’re afraid of the NRA.”
It was days after the Parkland school massacre and proposals to cut gun violence and make schools safer were back at the top of the agenda. That should have been music to the ears of McBath, who became a spokeswoman for gun law advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety after her own son was killed.
Except for one thing. “I never believed him,” said McBath.
In days, Trump would reverse his position on comprehensive gun law reform.
And McBath decided to change her life again.
“It’s not enough to just have the movement,” she told CNN. “It’s just not enough to have the marches and the rallies and the speeches and the remarks, unless we have people who are willing to create the bills to make this a safer nation.”
She was moved by the activism of the Parkland survivors and felt it was her turn to do something else.
Already exploring a run for Georgia’s state legislature, she decided she wanted to sit at Trump’s table as a lawmaker. As the filing deadline loomed, she declared her candidacy as a Democrat for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
That’s the district north of Atlanta that became home to the most expensive House race in history last year when Democrats sensed an opportunity to seize a long-held Republican seat only to come up short.
This year, McBath is in a runoff to be the Democratic challenger to Rep. Karen Handel, and could show whether gun control is a winning issue in a wealthy suburban district.
Red state reality
McBath jogged along the July 4th parade route in Dunwoody, Georgia, jokingly telling her 20-something aides, “This 58-year-old woman, you gotta keep up with me!” The aides, dripping with sweat on the hot and sticky day, picked up the pace.
Around them was a predominately white and upper-middle class crowd, some of the district’s voters who congenially greeted her. The kindness cloaks the political reality of Democrats trying to run in the northern suburbs that make up Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. It hasn’t elected a Democratic US representative since the 1970s.
But if last summer’s special election defeat was a disappointment for Democrats, McBath is not letting that get in her way.
“The voters do have the ability to change their mind, to change their vote,” said McBath, as she shook hand after hand. “People are shifting all the time. That doesn’t mean they’re not Republicans, but they may be looking for better answers.”
McBath said she believes mounting frustration over mass shootings and her story as the mother of a gun violence victim looking to protect children cuts across the political spectrum.
Fran Mahan says he isn’t so sure. He’s a 6th District voter who describes himself as a moderate. “I believe what she believes, but at the same time in the district, she’s going to have a harder time winning in areas against Karen Handel. That’s why I’m going to vote for Abel on the 24th.”
Abel is Kevin Abel, a Democrat running for the same congressional seat, which is wealthier, more diverse and has a more highly educated electorate than many Georgia districts. Abel came in second to McBath in Georgia’s Democratic primary and they face a runoff July 24.
An immigrant from South Africa and a tech businessman in Atlanta, Abel quickly says he’s a longtime admirer of McBath’s efforts to reform laws and agrees with her policy on guns. His pitch to Democrats in his district is simple: McBath won’t beat Handel, the incumbent Republican.
“It’s going to be very hard for her to separate herself from that single issue that drives her candidacy,” said Abel. “This label is going to be very hard for her to get away from in a race against Karen Handel, when it gets turned into a debate about guns. This is not the district in this country where you want to try to win on the gun issue alone.”
McBath counters that while guns are the entry point to her candidacy, it is not the sole issue of her campaign. She also publicly shares her two-time diagnosis of breast cancer and how the Atlanta public school district where her son grew up was so poor, she home-schooled him. McBath adds she wants immigration reform and environmental laws to curtail global warming. And she does not apologize.
“Yes, we are in a gun state. And yes, we are in a red state. But I know people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. I know people now want change.”
Mother of the movement
The congressional run was never in McBath’s life plan. Six years ago, she was working for Delta Air Lines as a flight attendant, mindful of her health as a breast cancer survivor. She adored her child, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who lived with his father in Jacksonville, Florida.
On November 23, 2012, Jordan and three friends parked at a gas station, listening to rap music in their car. Michael Dunn, then 45, objected to the loud music and argued with the teenagers. Dunn retrieved a loaded handgun from his car and fired 10 shots at the boys’ SUV.
Jordan was shot and killed.
At trial, Dunn said he felt threatened by the argument. He was found guilty of first-degree murder at a retrial and sentenced to life without parole.
McBath said she forgave Dunn, but it wasn’t enough.
“I didn’t understand how were these kinds of tragedies happening all over the country. And why aren’t our legislators talking about it?” she said.
Suddenly her job and even her own health needed to take a back seat. She retired from Delta and became a national spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America and Everytown for Gun Safety. McBath was now flying across the country not as a flight attendant, but to speak with lawmakers and meet with gun violence survivors. She stood before cameras, testified before Congress, and joined Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, driven by her mission to save children from guns.
Then the Parkland shooting happened.
“What I began to recognize is that I can keep helping to build this national movement and organize for gun violence prevention,” said McBath. “But you’ve got to have people on the inside that are willing to do the work, creating the bills and initiatives who will push the issue. You’ve got to have gun-sense champions on the inside. Until I’m able to create real, hard, systemic change, broad change that saves a large number of lives, there’s no justice. We’ve got children dying in the classroom. Where’s the justice in that?”
If the Parkland students were mobilizing fellow youth across the country, she could become their champion in Washington, she thought, noting Jordan was killed at the same age as some of the victims in the school.
“I’m still a mother. I’m still parenting. That’s why I believed this was the time to stand up.”
“This is the time” is a phrase echoed by Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that merged the financial heft of Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Everytown calls itself a grassroots movement, but in the handful of years it’s existed, the group has become its own PAC and lobbying force.
In 2018, Everytown is putting its financial muscle behind the fight for gun law advocates running for office.
“I think this is the year for gun-sense candidates,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown, in an interview with CNN. “No one exemplifies that more than Lucy McBath. She knows the toll and knows how to organize.
“The group of people influencing elected officials have now have decided to be elected officials.”
Feinblatt said a couple of dozen different Moms Demand Action members are now running for public office, from Congress to state legislatures to city council. Everytown says that in 2017, it spent more than $2 million to support gun safety candidates in Virginia, including gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam and lieutenant governor candidate Justin Fairfax.
For McBath, Everytown has spent more than $1 million — and she is not even the Democratic candidate yet.
But if she does win the primary, and wins again in November, “It will be one more indication that the political calculus about gun safety has radically changed,” said Feinblatt.