Georgia congressional race pulled into national gun control debate

The thousands of student gun control activists and their parents who gathered for a recent prayer vigil in the cavernous, Gothic-style sanctuary of the Washington National Cathedral sat in respectful silence as Lucy McBath took to the podium and declared herself a “surrogate mother” to their movement.

The Marietta resident stood at the center of the stage assembled in the church’s crossing and recalled some of her favorite memories with her son Jordan Davis, who was shot to death at age 17 outside a Florida convenience store six years ago. She vowed to be “right there” with the young people who were marching the next day to protest Congress’ lack of action on gun control.

McBath had a national profile as a "mother of the movement" even before she made her last-minute entry into the race for Roswell Congresswoman Karen Handel's 6th District seat. Her surprise candidacy now all but ensures the explosive issue of gun violence will remain at the forefront of the contest, even though Handel aimed to focus on this year's tax cut.

While it’s still early in the election season, it’s possible gun control could play a big role in the congressional midterm elections nationwide, experts say, especially now that student activists are mobilizing in the aftermath of the mass shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“November is a very long way away. But I think the potential for it to be a prominent issue in the fall is appreciable — I think it’s significant,” said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at State University of New York College at Cortland who has written books about gun control.

Focusing on school safety

McBath is not the only 6th District candidate whose life has been shaped by gun violence. Handel left home as a teenager shortly after her alcoholic mother pulled a gun on her. Yet, Handel has positioned herself firmly on the opposite side of the gun debate.

An unapologetic defender of gun rights, Handel previously won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and voiced support for policies such as “campus carry,” the Georgia law allowing people to bring guns onto the campuses of the state’s public universities. While running for governor in 2010, she toured a Heckler & Koch arms plant in Columbus. Afterward, her campaign gamely circulated a photo of her manning one of the rifles.

Despite that enthusiasm, firearms were not a major issue for her campaign ahead of the nationally watched special election that ultimately delivered her to Washington last year. And Handel has rarely discussed the issue since arriving on Capitol Hill. She declined an interview request to discuss her views on guns for this article. But Handel followed the lead of many of her Republican colleagues after the Parkland shootings, saying Congress should be focused on school safety.

“What we know is that we need to make sure all the schools around the country are hardened,” she said last month. Handel added she had been briefed by local school district officials and that she was “thoroughly impressed and gained a great deal of confidence in the work and the effort proactively that these school districts have put in to make sure that we have the highest levels of security that we need to keep our schools safe.”

Further, Handel backed a $1.3 trillion government spending bill last month that included Congress’ first changes to federal gun laws in a decade. Among them was a narrowly tailored provision boosting information sharing between federal agencies through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System and legislation reauthorizing $75 million per year for grants to fund school safety training and physical improvements to schools.

McBath’s top priority is requiring background checks for all firearms purchases, including those bought at gun shows and through other private means.

The three other Democrats in the 6th District race have called for similar changes. Steven Griffin, a former policy coordinator for the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, endorsed gun violence restraining orders at a recent forum organized by the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon. The orders would permit families and police to petition courts to take firearms away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others. Businessman Kevin Abel called for an assault weapons ban, smaller firearm magazines and stricter background check requirements. Bobby Kaple, a former television news anchor, also said stricter background checks are needed, as well as a ban on so-called bump stocks, which effectively turn semiautomatic firearms into automatic weapons like the ones used in last year’s Las Vegas shooting massacre.

“As a news anchor, I’ve seen too many of these mass shootings, whether they’re in our schools or our churches or in our communities,” Kaple said in a recent interview. “After each one of these massacres all we keep hearing is talk and no action from this current group in Washington. There’s no excuse for Congress to fail to act any longer.”

‘My child didn’t get a chance to grow up’

McBath appeared in Washington last month to support student activists who arranged the March for Our Lives rallies, which brought hundreds of thousands of people to the U.S. capital and cities across the country to push for gun control. In an interview ahead of the march, she indicated she would not hesitate to keep the Parkland students and her own family's story front and center on the campaign trail.

“This is like the whole Joshua generation that the Bible speaks about,” McBath said. “They tear down and they rebuild. And if it takes them doing this, I’m going to support them every step of the way because my child didn’t get a chance to grow up.”

“All those children that are marching and voting,” she added, “they represent my child.”

Some conservatives have expressed skepticism about the student activists. In February, for example, former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah prompted a social media firestorm after the Republican suggested the young demonstrators were being controlled by left-wing forces. His comments drew a rebuke on CNN from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Brandon Abzug, who called on Kingston to apologize.

McBath entered the national political arena as a gun control activist shortly after her son’s death, becoming a spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She has used her powerful story to advocate for stronger firearms laws on cable news and at statehouses, the White House and even the Democratic National Convention in 2016, where she and other “mothers of the movement” stumped for Hillary Clinton.

McBath originally announced a bid to challenge Republican state Rep. Sam Teasley of Marietta. But her focus shifted to Congress after a gunman killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She said the response to that massacre from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, including from Handel, has been "unacceptable."

“Either you are completely about the business of saving people’s lives or you’re not,” she said. “There’s no in between.”

‘Bad people do bad things’

Sixty-six percent of American voters support stricter gun laws while 31 percent do not, according to a national poll Quinnipiac University conducted in February. Among the gun owners who were surveyed, support totaled 50 percent in favor and 44 percent against.

Stuart Ehrlich, a 6th District resident and gun owner, said other issues rank higher among his priorities as a voter, including public safety and taxes. Meanwhile, he is skeptical about some of the ideas McBath and other Democrats have floated, including raising the age to 21 for semiautomatic gun purchases.

“Bad people do bad things and will do bad things regardless of whether or not the age is 18 or 21,” said Ehrlich, a community bank executive who voted for Handel in last year’s special election. “Raising the age from 18 to 21 — I guess my question is: What is it going to accomplish? If you can show me statistically that it will improve — then I don’t know that you would find too many gun owners that would say, ‘That is a terrible thing.’ ”

Ehrlich practices marksmanship at SharpShooters USA, a Roswell gun range and store owned by Tom Deets. A former DeKalb County police officer, Deets said the focus should instead be on preventing gun thefts, boosting school security, strictly prosecuting people who commit gun violence and improving the nation’s mental health care system.

“We have got to do a better job of fixing a broken mental health system. It really, truly is broken,” Deets said before citing the troubled past of the man accused in the Parkland shootings, who had previous encounters with law enforcement officers and who had been expelled from the high school. “We have got to have a better system of identifying people who are posing a threat to themselves and to others and getting treatment for them.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.