In early January, less than a week after Democrats took control of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood before a podium and made one of her highest priorities clear: gun control.
It was the eighth anniversary of a grim day in modern American history—the shooting that nearly killed then-Representative Gabby Giffords at a constituent event in Arizona. “It’s a day of grief,” Pelosi said at a crowded press conference in the Capitol, “but also a day of action.” She introduced Giffords, who now runs a political action committee dedicated to gun safety, and veteran Representative Mike Thompson of California, the chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Congress, they say, must pass legislation to expand background checks before gun purchases.
But then Pelosi did something unusual: She turned to acknowledge one of the newest members of the House. Lucy McBath, 58, had never been a politician before. She had worked as a flight attendant and human resources executive for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta for 30 years. But everyone in the room knew why she was there. She had recently marked her own tragic anniversary.
More than six years ago, McBath got the phone call; a police officer on the line said things that no parent should ever hear, but which far too many in the U.S. now do. Her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was dead. He had been riding in a car with friends when they got into a dispute with someone over whether they were playing music too loudly. A trivial, stupid argument over nothing. Davis was shot and died instantly. “Background checks save lives,” McBath told the crowd on Capitol Hill. “I ask my fellow parents, my fellow members, and my fellow Americans to stand with us today.… Together, we will make our community safer, and the country deserves it.”
Like so many modest gun bills, the expanded background check legislation had been introduced before, only to wither. Democrats had proposed similar measures in 2012, after a mass shooting that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In 2015, after a shooter killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, they offered a tougher version that required law enforcement approval of a permit to buy a gun. It, too, went nowhere. But this time, gun safety advocates believe, is different. McBath’s surprising upset last November was Exhibit A. She had run—and won—on gun control in a deep-red district in suburban Atlanta. And she was far from alone.
In the room with her at the press conference was Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat who unseated a National Rifle Association–backed Republican for a seat in northern Virginia, and Kim Schrier, a physician from Washington state who beat another GOP incumbent.
These candidates and others didn’t just win in what was a solidly blue year; they ran on gun safety loudly. Wexton’s television ads, for example, pummeled her opponent relentlessly as a tool of the NRA. In all, 95 candidates who were supported by Giffords PAC won. Everytown for Gun Safety, the PAC founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a possible 2020 presidential candidate), endorsed 66 candidates in the 2018 midterms, and 66 percent of them won. For the first time in at least two decades, gun safety advocates outspent the gun lobby, by $2.4 million, according to Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun violence prevention advocacy group.
“The issue resonated with pretty much everyone,” Wexton tells Newsweek, “but in particular with independent and moderate Republican women. There was really a palpable sense, after all these instances of mass shootings, that enough was enough. Some common sense stuff had to get done.”
McBath, standing beside Wexton, nodded vigorously. “That is what we’re here for.”
Republicans, of course, still control the Senate, and President Donald Trump, who has called himself “the biggest fan of the Second Amendment,” remains skeptical of most new gun laws. But the freshmen are far from naïve. “We’re in a long game,” McBath says. “And this issue isn’t going away.”
The Democratic embrace of gun control represents a significant shift in Washington. It has been nearly a generation since then-President Bill Clinton and a Democrat-dominated Congress passed an assault weapons ban, provoking a backlash that helped Republicans retake the House and the Senate in 1994, giving the GOP legislative control for the first time in 40 years. The effect on the Democratic Party, including its attitude toward gun control, was profound. The party effectively dropped guns as an issue. And an increasing number of Democratic representatives, particularly in red states, began getting NRA support.
Even in Barack Obama’s first term as president, when Democrats controlled one or both houses, nothing got done on gun control. In 2012, after Sandy Hook, Obama, with the passionate support of grieving parents, pushed hard for the expanded background check bill. But in 2013, it died after a filibuster in a Senate still controlled by Democrats. “That alone shows you how much has changed,” says Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords PAC and a veteran Hill staffer. “Everyone [in the Democratic majority] was afraid back then. We thought gun safety was a losing issue. Hell, it had been a losing issue. Now? I don’t think so.”
For decades, gun rights supporters, led by the NRA, have tenaciously fought against virtually every effort, no matter how small, to rein in gun violence. It’s why a bill that seems, to noncombatants in the gun wars, relatively uncontroversial—the expanded background check legislation that House Democrats proposed last month—almost always runs into Republican opposition. In red states in particular, gun owners are passionate and politically organized by the NRA, and any Republican who goes against them risks defeat. To the pro-gun lobby, there is a gun grabber under every bed in Washington, and every piece of gun violence legislation is a step toward the ultimate endgame: a massive, mandatory government buyback of guns from private citizens, much as Australia did in 1996, when over 1 million firearms were collected and destroyed.
This fear underlies the gun lobby’s core legislative tack: to fight every skirmish as if everything is at stake—and to seize ground when their supporters are in power. Thus, when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress during the George W. Bush administration, the NRA pushed through a bill that gave gun manufacturers and dealers immunity from liability litigation, something that had begun to hurt them. Lawsuits in Chicago and Detroit, for example, went after illegal straw purchases—transactions that shielded the identity of the ultimate purchaser of a weapon. Studies on the impact of those suits found that there were significant reductions in the flow of weapons to criminals in those cities.
Now, however, the GOP finds itself on the defensive. Just before last year’s midterms, Gallup found that six in 10 Americans support stricter gun laws, among the highest numbers in two decades. Even more—as many as 90 percent—favor universal background checks. The reason for the shift, political analysts and pollsters say, is the shocking regularity of mass shootings in the United States; the routine adoption of things like “lockdown” drills in suburban schools (Wexton says they’ve come “to disgust a whole lot of parents, both Republicans and Democrats”); and the standard response of those who support gun rights, which is to offer thoughts and prayers to the victims but then shrug and argue that gun possession is enshrined in the Constitution. After a gunman shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last year, satirical news site The Onion nailed the dynamic: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Now, that sarcasm may be misplaced. Last spring, millions of people across the country turned out to demonstrate for more gun laws in the student-led March for Our Lives protests.
Even Trump noticed. His Justice Department imposed a ban on bump stocks, attachments that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like fully automatic machine guns. Such a device was used by the shooter who massacred 58 people and wounded hundreds of others at a concert in Las Vegas in 2017. According to The Wall Street Journal, it was the first time in more than half a century that the federal government required any gun-related item to be turned over or destroyed.
The NRA, however, denies the political landscape on guns is changing. Yes, the group acknowledges, its membership dues and contributions have fallen 21 percent. But similar dips have occurred after the elections of other gun-friendly presidents. Likewise, the NRA dismisses the victories of gun control advocates like McBath. “To paint November as a referendum on guns is just wrong,” says spokeswoman Dana Loesch. “There were a lot of issues in play.” New gun safety measures, she says, are close to pointless. As Loesch puts it, “Nothing that has been proposed would have done anything to prevent any of the mass attacks that have occurred in this country. That’s just a fact.”
Guns safety advocates reject that assertion. They note, accurately, that existing background check requirements should have prevented the shooting that killed 26 in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017. But the Air Force, where gunman Devin Patrick Kelley had served, failed to report his domestic abuse conviction and involuntary commitment to a mental health center. The bill Democrats introduced last month includes financial penalties to enhance reporting compliance for employers, among other measures. Gun control advocates note that the FBI asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in December 2017 to retrieve more than 4,000 guns purchased by people who should not have passed background checks. “Strengthening the system is a no-brainer,” says McBath.
Many Senate Republicans, however, remain unconvinced. “I’m all for practical, common sense solutions [to reduce mass shootings],” Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has said. “I just haven’t heard any yet.”
Until that moment in 2012 when her son was murdered, McBath says she didn’t consider herself a particularly “political person.” She had been interested in politics for a while—and had once interned for Douglas Wilder, who became the first African-American governor of Virginia—but she didn’t see a career there. She became a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines and moved to Atlanta, where the company is based. “For years, I didn’t give politics much thought,” she says. McBath explains she always considered herself a gun control advocate but didn’t dive deep into the issue.
That changed on Black Friday in 2012, the day Jordan was killed while sitting in a car at a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station. (McBath and her husband had divorced, and Jordan had moved in with his father.) Out of her grief came anger and a need to channel it. “I pretty quickly decided that what matters is what you do with a moment like that,” she says. “Do you curl up and fade away, defined only by your grief? Or do you do something about it, try to turn it into something meaningful, not just for you but for many?”