McBath takes center stage in congressional gun control debate

Rep. Lucy McBath

WASHINGTON — In the early 1990s, Georgia Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich voted against two major landmark gun violence prevention bills — an assault weapons ban and the so-called Brady Bill to require background checks for firearms sales.

But the 6th District U.S. House seat isn’t occupied by Gingrich anymore.

The somewhat reconfigured suburban Atlanta district is now represented by Rep. Lucy McBath, a freshman who’s the first Democrat to hold that seat since 1979. McBath — whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed in 2012 when he was 17 following an argument about loud music — has quickly become one of the House’s most visible proponents of expanding gun control.

“Lucy ran for Congress because of her son being murdered in this way,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at the gun control advocacy group Brady Campaign. “That sort of contrast of just what that seat has represented versus what it represents today speaks volumes about the (gun control) movement in general.”

McBath is one of many congressional Democrats who have been working this year to restrict access to firearms, leading to the House passage in February of some of the most sweeping gun control legislation in decades. That effort has languished due to opposition in the GOP-led Senate, but the gun control debate will get renewed attention on Capitol Hill next week.

House and Senate leaders vowed to make gun violence a top priority following the back-to-back massacres in El Paso and Dayton in early August. Calls for reform continued following another mass shooting recently in West Texas.

In the House, Georgia lawmakers will play central roles in the upcoming policy fight.

The House Judiciary plans to vote this week on a “red flag” bill from McBath that would limit access to firearms for those deemed a risk to themselves or others. The bill would set up a procedure for obtaining so-called Extreme Risk Protection Orders in federal court.

“It’s the sad truth that gun violence can often be prevented. When people are in crisis and pose a threat to themselves or others, those closest to them are often the first to see the warning signs. This common-sense legislation would empower loved ones and members of law enforcement to prevent tragedies,” McBath said in a statement when she introduced the bill.

President Donald J. Trump and some Senate Republicans have reportedly signaled a willingness to consider legislation that would incentivize state red flag laws. McBath’s bill would ensure nationwide access to extreme risk protection orders, even in states that don’t have red flag laws on the books.

McBath is one of three Georgia lawmakers who serves on the Judiciary Committee, which will witness the first round of what promises to be a heated debate over the historically divisive issue of gun control.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-9th) is the top Republican on the committee; Rep. Hank Johnson (D-4th) also serves on the panel.

Collins, who has used his perch to combat his Democratic colleagues’ agenda so far this session, doesn’t appear interested in backing any of the gun control policies the Democrats have advanced.

“In the wake of tragedy, legislators must offer solutions that can save lives, not false hope in bills that don’t work,” he told the Recorder in a statement.

“The Judiciary Committee should address the actual factors contributing to gun violence. We need legislation that keeps guns off the black market and helps local, state and federal law enforcement better coordinate responses to potential threats of mass violence.” 

He’s introduced legislation he said would address these problems.

Georgia lawmakers in the U.S. House split along party lines in February when the chamber passed an even tougher background check bill than the 1993 Brady Bill. All nine Republicans voted against it; all five Democrats endorsed it.

H.R. 8 would require federal background checks on all gun purchases, including private transactions.The law currently only requires background checks on sales from federally licensed gun dealers. About one in five U.S. gun sales are conducted without a background check, according to the Brady Campaign.

Georgia Democrats are advocating additional gun-control measures. Johnson is a co-sponsor of McBath’s red flag bill. McBath and Johnson — along with Reps. John Lewis (D-5th) and David Scott (D-13th) are co-sponsoring an assault weapons ban.

Johnson said in a statement that he’s “energized and inspired” as he prepares to head back to Washington and as the U.S. House continues to call on McConnell to vote on the House-passed background check legislation. Johnson said he plans to reintroduce legislation to make it illegal to carry loaded guns onto airport property.

Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-2nd) said in a statement that in addition to supporting House-passed efforts to expand background checks, “I would support common sense legislation to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or others.”

 

GOP opposition

While major gun control reforms will likely clear the House Judiciary Committee and could pass the Democratic-controlled House largely along party lines, they face a much steeper climb in the GOP-controlled Senate.

There, Republican senators have suggested they aren’t willing to support the types of sweeping changes Democrats and gun safety advocates argue are necessary to curb gun violence.

Many of them cite fears about infringing on Second Amendment rights, but others attribute their reluctance to engage on the issue to the powerful gun rights lobby.

“The tribalism has just gotten more and more deeply ingrained across the board and I think the (National Rifle Association) has been brilliant in solidifying their base and intimidating them,” said Patrick Griffin, who worked on the Brady Bill as the White House congressional liaison during Clinton’s first term.

Georgia’s two Republican senators — Johnny Isakson and David Perdue — have shown little interest in backing gun control legislation.

Isakson, who plans to retire in coming months, voted in 2013 against a bipartisan effort to expand background checks.

He says on his website: “I firmly believe that we do not need more gun control in America; rather we need more criminal control. Therefore, I support instant background checks on all retail sales of guns to prevent convicted felons from obtaining them, but I do not support waiting periods or the registration of any firearm. I will continue to oppose any attempts to crack down on law-abiding firearms owners, rather than punishing criminals who use guns.”

Isakson’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story about what, if any, gun control legislation he might be willing to support.

Perdue, who’s up for re-election in 2020, told reporters in his Atlanta office earlier this month that he wasn’t sure whether he would support red flag legislation.

He stressed concerns about how such a proposal would balance the government’s authority to confiscate a gun from a troubled person with that individual’s constitutional rights. 

“Our founders had one thing in mind and it is that they wanted out from under the thumb of a monarch-type structure, a top-down structure. They did not want big government,” Perdue said.

Perdue said in a statement that there are some “common sense things that should be done with background checks” and he said he’s working on a bill to examine best practices for safe school construction. He added, “President Trump and I both are strong supporters of the Second Amendment.”

Heyne of the Brady Campaign doesn’t see Georgia Republicans budging much on the issue during this session.

“In this moment where so many hearts and minds are changing, some people seem to be digging in their heels in a little bit,” he said. “Who knows where politics will be long term.”

But Heyne said recent elections, including McBath’s win in the 6th District, indicate some “really interesting and exciting movement.”

McBath is an “important bellwether for the country,” Heyne said. “I think that the demographics are changing and people are running moral campaigns and are being rewarded for it.”

 

Robin Bravender is a reporter with Georgia Recorder. The Georgia Recorder is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on connecting public policies to the stories of the people and communities affected by them.

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