Last Nov. 5, state Sen. Brandon Beach was at a fundraising dinner for King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, where his wife is director of admissions.
In charge of the entertainment was John Smoltz, the former Atlanta Braves pitcher and a founding board member for the private prep school. Smoltz brought in two fellow ex-Braves and fellow Hall-of-Fame pitchers, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Beach and Maddux shared a table. Barely a year earlier, a lone gunman perched in a high-rise Las Vegas hotel room had killed 59 country music fans at a concert below. With a stash of 1,100 rounds of ammunition, he wounded more than 400 more.
Maddux, who lives in Las Vegas, began talking about that night. “He and his wife were home, and his kids were at that concert. And he said the first thing he tried to do was call them,” Beach said. “You couldn’t get through. His wife and him immediately got in a car and drove down there. It was roped off.”
Maddux talked his way through the police lines. “He finally found his two kids, hugged them, and drove them out of there. He said it looked like a war zone. He was definitely shook up. You could tell,” said Beach, who has two kids of his own.
Beach can point to similar conversations he’s had, though none so dramatic. (Through a Braves spokeswoman, Maddux confirmed last year’s encounter with the state senator.)
Beach is now one of several Republican candidates in the Sixth District race to face U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, who was drawn into the political arena by the 2012 murder of her son with a handgun.
Since this month’s gun massacres in El Paso and Dayton, many Republicans have gone quiet – caught between public opinion and a party base that in the past has proven intolerant of any concessions when it comes to gun rights.
Beach has decided against the silent route, and instead is attempting to thread a delicate needle. He’s running a campaign that might be called “pro-Second Amendment, but…”
As in: “I was at a North Fulton Chamber breakfast last Wednesday, shaking hands,” Beach said. “I had a friend of mine, a very conservative Republican woman, come up to me and say, ‘I’m pro-Second Amendment, but you better do something about these mass shootings.”
In a Thursday interview, Beach outlined where he was and wasn’t willing to go when it comes to gun violence.
“The most important thing we could do quickly is have more resources put toward domestic terrorism — just as we track people from Al-Qaeda,” Beach said. “I’m all into privacy rights, but when someone gets on a keyboard and starts chatting in these rooms or on Facebook, saying they want to kill people or blow up a school or synagogue – your privacy’s not private anymore.”
One thing that currently handicaps such a response is the fact that federal law currently recognizes only foreign-linked outrages as terrorism. There is no crime of domestic terrorism.
Beach would support bipartisan legislation to fix that, and to allow greater pursuit of enablers on the fringes of mass shootings – parents and friends, for instance. Perhaps, too, language to permit charges of criminal negligence, or at least increased civil court exposure.
Beach isn’t ready to commit on two initiatives that Senate Republicans are now wrestling with in Washington – universal background checks and “red flag” legislation that would allow judges to order weapons seized from those considered a danger to others or themselves. He wants details.
A renewed ban on assault rifles? “No,” Beach said.
A ban on 100-round magazines? “I think that’s something we should discuss,” he said. In the Republican world, that counts as movement.
Beach intends to serve out his term in the state Senate. Which means that next year, he could have a chance to vote on Senate Bill 150, authored by Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, which would prohibit those convicted of misdemeanor crimes involving family violence from possessing a firearm.
SB 150 would mirror a federal statute. It won unanimous approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee this year, then quickly stalled.
Beach hasn’t read the bill but didn’t rule out supporting it. “Even the most staunch Second Amendment supporter is against putting guns in the hands of people that are committing domestic violence. But I’d have to look at it,” he said.
Many will say Beach is dabbling in incrementalism. Many Republicans will be aghast that he’s gone this far.
But in GOP circles, Beach is laying down a marker. How his primary competitors respond could tell us much about the future of gun violence legislation here and in Washington.
A spokesman for former congresswoman Karen Handel, who must be considered the GOP frontrunner, pointed out that Handel voted for legislation in 2018 — signed by President Donald Trump — intended to improve the federal database that tracks those prohibited from owning firearms, by requiring state governments to submit more mental health and domestic violence records.
In a Facebook post after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, Handel condemned the acts as “domestic terrorism,” but also pointed to an inadequate mental health care system and violent video games.
Businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Green has pitched herself as an uncompromising gun rights advocate. And is fundraising against Republican support of “red flag” legislation in Congress.
Evidence suggests that even Republican voters, particularly women, are shifting on the issue of gun violence. The day before we talked, Fox News released a national poll that indicated broad, bipartisan majorities of voters favor background checks on gun purchasers, and keeping guns out of the reach of people who pose a danger to themselves or others.
Two-thirds of Fox News respondents supported a ban on assault weapons. By party, the ban was supported by 86% of Democrats and 46% of Republicans. But Beach and his GOP compadres know that ownership of the Sixth District will be decided in a November general election, not a GOP primary.
And 54% of Republican women supported an assault weapons ban, according to that Fox News survey. That’s something to think about.
In framing his response to the El Paso and Dayton massacres, Beach is relying in part on personal experience. In 2016, he voted for a bill to permit the carrying of permitted, concealed weapons on public university campuses. Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it.
The campus gun issue resurfaced in 2017. This time, Beach and three other GOP senators opposed it. But it still passed, and this time Governor Deal signed it.
On Thursday, Beach had two separate explanations for his change of heart — aimed at two distinct, opposing factions within the GOP. “If you really look at that bill, for them to get the governor to sign it, it was watered down to the point that it really wasn’t pro-Second Amendment,” Beach said. “You couldn’t take [a gun] in a building with a professor. You couldn’t take it in a fraternity house or a sorority house. You couldn’t take it to an athletic event. You couldn’t take it to a dormitory. You had to leave it in your glove box. The No. 1 crime on college campuses is car break-ins.”
And then there were the constituents of Senate District 21, which may have the wealthiest and best-educated voters in the state. “Republican mothers and fathers were calling me and saying, ‘I don’t want guns at Georgia Southern, where my daughter’s going to school,’” Beach said. “My constituents were saying four-to-one, ‘We don’t want guns on college campuses.’ We tallied them up.”
What’s significant is what didn’t happen next. Beach’s all-important rating from the National Rifle Association dropped from “A” to “B.” But has since been restored to “A.”
Neither did Beach’s vote against the campus-carry bill result in a 2018 GOP primary challenger — usually the most potent threat wielded by Second Amendment enthusiasts. He had Democratic opposition but did not sweat the general election.
The proof? That dinner where Brandon Beach and Greg Maddux talked baseball and mass murder was on Monday, Nov. 5. The next day was Election Day, which saw Beach, a Republican, elected to his fourth term in the state Senate, and gun activist Lucy McBath, a Democrat, elected to her first term in Congress.
“There are people that are pro-second Amendment, but when you’re scared to go to a Walmart, that’s a problem,” Beach said. “People are wanting us to do something.”
It might be too subtle for a bumper sticker, but it’s worth considering: “Pro-Second Amendment, but….”