For many years, maybe since the expiration of the assault-rifle ban, gun regulation in this country has been on the ropes. We’ve seen one mass shooting after another. You know the names: Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Thousand Oaks, Las Vegas, Charleston, Parkland, Pittsburgh. And, through all of them, the N.R.A. has pushed to expand gun rights. It argues that the answer to so much violence is simply more guns. President Trump has even suggested that teachers should be packing in classrooms in order to prevent school shootings. And now the N.R.A. is looking to expand its horizons from the U.S.—to Brazil, to Australia, and to other countries.
Amid this controversy, though, for the first time in eight years, the House of Representatives has resumed hearings on gun violence. Are the political winds finally shifting toward reform? On The New Yorker Radio Hour, David Remnick asked Representative Lucy McBath, who ran for Congress as a gun reformer—and won—in the conservative Georgia district once represented by Newt Gingrich. In this interview, Remnick and McBath discuss universal background checks, the Second Amendment, and the potential to change gun culture in America.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
David Remnick: Lucy McBath’s connection to the issue of gun violence couldn’t be more intimate or more tragic. Her teen-age son Jordan was shot and killed, in 2012. He was sitting in an S.U.V. at a gas station in Florida. What happened?
Lucy McBath: Well, it was the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, November 23, 2012, and the boys, Jordan and three of his friends, were simply going shopping. They stopped at a gas station, a convenience store, just for a matter of three and a half minutes. Jordan had said to the boys, “If you’re going to go to the next mall, you know, we need chewing gum,” you know, “We gotta have fresh breath for the girls.” And so, in that three and a half minutes, they stopped at the Gate gas station, and Michael Dunn drives in and parks next to them on the passenger side. Then, that three and a half minutes, he started a verbal altercation with the boys over the volume of their music, considered them, called them gang bangers and thugs, because they wouldn’t turn the music down. And then he started the verbal altercation, shot ten rounds into the car, and simply drove away.
I’m so sorry. It is beyond horrendous, and I, it’s just very hard to ask a next question. One of your responses to the death of your son was to get deeply into politics. But the other, which is is quite incredible, I think, for some people to get their arms around—see, Michael Dunn was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, and you requested that prosecutors not push for the death penalty.
We never considered pushing for the death penalty because I firmly believe that I am not the one to choose who lives and who dies. Morally and ethically, I believe that decision is left to God. We suffered so much pain and so much anguish, and I actually did not want to be the one to inflict that upon his family, and I didn’t want to be rooted in those kinds of decisions, because I truly believed that would be the noose around my neck and I would not be able to move forward to actively champion for safer gun laws and a safer gun culture, because that’s what I believed that I was given to do, and I couldn’t do that without forgiveness, and I couldn’t do that without releasing myself.
Do you feel that justice has been served? Michael Dunn is serving a life sentence in prison.
Yes, I do believe that Michael Dunn is, you know, actually in prison for the rest of his life. However, you know, justice is never really completely served, because those young men that were in the car with [Jordan], they still suffer, they will still suffer from the implications of this trauma, so no there’s no justice in that. And then there’s so many people around the country that still continue to suffer violently by unnecessary gun violence, and so on. Until we can eradicate this extremist culture, still, justice is not served.
One of your first official acts as a newly elected member of Congress was to co-sponsor a bill that requires universal background checks for buying a gun. Now, why did you and your fellow-Democrats choose that particular issue related to gun control as your opening bid? Why universal background checks?
Well, because, you know—and in light of all the work that I’ve done around the country the last six years—what we’ve begun to understand is that universal background checks for all gun sales is probably the No. 1 most common-sense way to be able to change the extremist culture that we’re living under. You’ve got over ninety per cent of Americans in the country—and this is including, you know, law-abiding gun owners and hunters and law enforcement—that believe universal background checks is probably the greatest way to save as many lives as possible.
But I’m confused. So, nationally, we’ve got polls that say that a lot of public support for more regulation of weapons is, well, that’s growing. And in many states, including your own, legislatures are going in the opposite direction and loosening access to guns. So what’s really going on politically?
Well, the difference there is that, you know, there is a lot of influence from the N.R.A. gun lobby, and the N.R.A. gun lobby has for years and years now pre-crafted a lot of legislation and passed it to specific legislators and said, “Look, you know, if you want to have our support, then you pass this legislation.” And you know, also, too—it’s just, you know, the fear-mongering that you need to be afraid of people that don’t look, think, or act like you. Everyone’s coming to get your gun. And that’s just once they—once you pass background checks, then what’s going to happen next? Well, you know, that’s just simply not the truth. A lot of the work that I do is dispelling that false narrative, and I think specifically, with the last election, we saw numbers of people going to the polls, numbers of young people going to the polls, and the No. 1 issue that they were going on is guns. And so I think that you know more and more members of Congress are going to have to really pay heed and attention, they’re going to have to take a very critical look at, you know, trying to find some solutions to the existing gun culture that no one is immune from.
I’m curious to know how you framed the issue—you won in a district that was held by Newt Gingrich. This is not a liberal district. It’s not John Lewis’s district, in the Atlanta area. It’s quite different. How did you go about talking about guns during your campaign, and manage to win?
Well, you know, I did, I have to be very honest, there are people who kept saying to me, in the very beginning, “Don’t run on guns, you can’t win. You know, there’s no sentiment for it.” And I basically told my story. Because I am a mother, I’m still a mother. And, you know, this is one of the kinds of tragedies that no mother, no family ever wants to have to consider. And as we have continued to watch over and over again all of these tragedies around the country, and most recently, you know, what happened with Parkland, I think that that came too close to home for a lot of the families in my district. And so there were a lot of mothers that were appealing to me because they know they don’t want to be in my club.
Now, I realize you’re in a highly politicized atmosphere; you’ve got to hold on to your seat—even though you’ve just entered into it, it comes up every two years now. Do you think the Second Amendment is something worth preserving?
I am a strong supporter and proponent of the Second Amendment. Always have been. It’s not about infringing upon the rights of people to own guns as gun enthusiasts or hunters, but what it is, is it is getting people to understand that we have to put in place common-sense measures. Just basic measures to keep guns out of the hands of individuals that should not have them.
This is what’s hard for someone like me, who comes with all the obvious prejudice—sitting where I am, and I don’t own a gun—but there are hunters in Europe who own guns legally. But the structure of gun laws is so much stricter, and the corresponding rate of murders and accidental deaths and all the rest is so much lower. Isn’t that a more desirable way to live our lives, or is it just impossible because of the peculiar nature of American history and our relationship to guns?
I would most definitely say it’s more desirable to live without the carnage of gun violence. But I think, you know, based upon our Second Amendment and, you know, our Founding Fathers, you know, people protecting themselves in their territories and things of that nature, I think that has just, guns has been a culture and a way of life for American society, almost, in a sense, guns are a religion here.
Guns are religion—is that something that’s just going to go on in perpetuity? Do you think that will fade?
I think it’s a matter of just trying to change a culture that has become very extremist. And that takes time, and that takes effort. A lot of people really enjoy guns. A lot of people really like having guns. I am not one, but I don’t want to infringe upon anyone that, you know, is law-abiding and using their guns properly, so I understand the nature of change. It does not happen overnight. It’s taken us twenty-five, thirty years to get to this point, and, if change is to be positive and effective, it is done slowly.
Since 2005, I think it is, the gun industry has enjoyed broad protection from liability litigation, like the types of lawsuits which, in the end, destroyed big tobacco in the nineties. Would you like to see those kind of laws repealed?
Well, you know, if you start talking about repealing laws immediately, then that’s when everybody gets up in arms, and it makes it much harder to be able to change the laws. So sometimes it’s just a matter of amending bit by bit to be able to get the law to the point where it is feasible and acceptable to gun owners and people that are not gun owners.
You know, it seems that people are not going to move on this issue unless it’s deeply personalized, and they see it in front of their faces. As one instance of that, the other day, Senator Kamala Harris, who’s running for President, told a CNN town hall that gun control would have been possible in 2012, after the massacre at Sandy Hook, if legislators had been locked in a room and shown the autopsy photographs of those children.
You know, I have to honestly say, the biggest movement and shift that we’ve seen in this culture is simply because of the victims. When victims and survivors are coming to the legislative bodies and they’re telling their stories and they’re appealing, we’ve seen movement. We’ve seen movement. And so it’s a matter of changing one mind and one heart at a time. You change the culture, and the policy change comes right on the heels of that.