NOBODY EXPECTED Lucy McBath to win. “When I told people I wanted to run for Congress, they’d laugh or pat me on the arm and say, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice?’ ” she says, leaning over and touching my arm with her perfectly manicured nails to make her point. To be fair, they had reason to be skeptical. McBath, 59, was a black woman running in a majority white suburb outside Atlanta—a Democrat trying to win a seat that Newt Gingrich had held for 20 years. She’d spent her professional life as a flight attendant and had never once campaigned for anything. But in a country where gun violence claims nearly 40,000 lives a year, voters—especially mothers—found themselves listening to her.
“I just told them my story, and that was enough,” she explains. “Because people are afraid. It’s not just black people. It’s everyone. People are afraid to go to the mall. Mothers are afraid to send their kids to school. Too many people are dying, and it has to stop.”
Her story begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, 2012. McBath had spent the holiday with friends in Chicago while her son, Jordan, 17, was with his father in Jacksonville, Florida. Lucy and Ron had divorced when the boy was four, but both had worked hard over the years to share parenting.
Growing up, Jordan was a spirited child with energy to burn, and McBath fretted over the way his teachers disciplined him (more sternly, she thought, than his white classmates). By fourth grade, she’d decided to homeschool him—which she did for five years, an experience she calls the most gratifying of her life. In pictures, Jordan is strikingly good-looking, with a big smile and protruding ears that keep him from being too handsome. Friends came easily to him. When he stopped homeschooling and began attending the local high school, McBath had to buy an SUV just so she could fit all his buddies in the back.
On that Friday evening, Jordan and three friends pulled up to a gas station. Jacksonville has a high homicide rate, but the area they were in was not considered dangerous. One of the boys went in to buy a pack of cigarettes and gum. A favorite song, “Beef” featuring the rapper Lil Reese, began to play on the radio. Someone turned the volume up.
A black Volkswagen Jetta pulled in next to them. The female passenger went inside for a bottle of wine and some chips, and the driver, Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white software developer who had just attended his son’s wedding, rolled down his window and told the boys to turn the music down. He could not hear himself think, he said. One of the boys complied, but Jordan objected, and the volume went back up.
Words were exchanged. Without warning, Dunn leaned over to his glove department, took out a 9mm semiautomatic pistol, and shot into the car. In a panic, the boys tried to pull away but Dunn opened his door and continued to shoot—10 bullets in all. Jordan was the only one hit. Three bullets ended up in his body, two in his legs, while one passed through his lungs before fatally piercing his aorta.
Jordan’s death, only a few months after that of another unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin’s, became known as “the loud-music killing.” Like Martin’s killer, Dunn would also try to argue that he should be protected by Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which absolves killers who can show they feared for their life. Dunn claimed to have seen a gun “or maybe a pipe” in the car. No weapon was ever found.
The first trial ended with a jury deadlocked on a first degree–murder count, the second with a conviction, and a life sentence for Dunn—and McBath and her ex-husband faithfully attended court every day. During that time, McBath, a deeply religious woman who had named her son after the river Jordan in the Bible, found herself questioning her faith. Hadn’t she done everything right? Why was God punishing her? “After Jordan died,” she says, “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going to die, too? Or am I going to go out there and make a difference?’ ”
IN SEPTEMBER 2013 McBath met Shannon Watts, who founded the grassroots group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Watts remembers being bowled over by McBath. “She has incredible charisma,” Watts says. “It’s a mixture of warmth, kindness, and power.” She also brought a much-needed perspective to Watts’s burgeoning group. As the journalist Jelani Cobb, who has written about McBath’s career, says, “The most prominent white people in the gun conversation tend to be parents of survivors of mass shootings; for African Americans, it’s about handgun violence and shootings by the police. Because of who she is, Lucy bridges that gap.”
In person, McBath is elegant and poised. She takes care with her appearance, her makeup and jewelry, but she isn’t fussy. At one point, we were standing in the sun in 94-degree heat, and though she would have been more comfortable in the knit camisole beneath her sweater, she never took it off. There’s a correctness to her bearing and a natural gravitas, too: During her years as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines, she was always a leader of her crew. Her father, a dentist and the president of the NAACP chapter in Illinois, was disappointed in her choice of career (he’d hoped she would be a lawyer), but McBath loved the travel. And working with the public was perfect training for the job she has now. “You deal with people from every walk of life,” she says. “You have to learn to size them up quickly and figure out what they want. You have to listen to their fears, their doubts; you try to make them happy, but sometimes you have to say no.”
As Watts’s group gained prominence and considerable funding from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, McBath left the airline to work for Bloomberg’s umbrella organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, full-time. “Every conversation I had with her would end with me asking, ‘When are you going to run for public office?’ ” Watts recalls. “I’d been thinking state senate,” she adds with a laugh. “But then the shooting happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and we all realized she had to go bigger.” In the end, Everytown for Gun Safety spent more than $4 million on McBath’s congressional campaign. Her race was close—McBath would win the district by a few thousand votes—and Watts wasn’t always sure of the outcome. But when she tried to start a conversation about what McBath might do after the election, the candidate seemed perplexed: “What do you mean? I am going to Washington.”
Once there, she hit the ground running—helping to pass a bipartisan bill on background checks right away. “With this job, it never ends,” she says. “I go home at night and I start my reading for the next day. Your brain is always working. But you have to do it because what you do is going to impact people’s lives. Not just in my district but all over the country.” As an example of how overwhelming her life has become, McBath gestures to her hair, which she used to spend hours at the salon getting straightened. These days, it falls in long, natural waves. “I had to let it go,” she explains with a touch of regret. “I just didn’t have the time.”
ON THE DAY I visit McBath in D.C., an anti–gun violence rally is taking place on the West Lawn of the Capitol. All the stars in the Democratic firmament are there—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressman John Lewis (his district is right next to McBath’s), Senator Dick Durbin. As McBath makes her way through the crowd, a preacher from Flatbush, Brooklyn, envelops her in a hug and asks for a selfie. Just a year earlier, she’d addressed a summit he’d helped organize on reducing gun violence. I ask if he’s surprised that she had been elected to Congress. “Not at all,” he says. “She has a uniquely American story, one where she has taken her pain and risen to the highest level. She has every right to be bitter, but she’s not. Everything she’s done has been from love.”
After the rally, McBath, a dozen other survivors of gun violence, and a handful of activists and politicians, including Lewis, make their way through the labyrinthine tunnels under Capitol Hill to the offices of Senator Mitch McConnell. They explain to a young staffer that they are there to urge the senator to bring H.R. 8, the background-check bill McBath helped pass in January, to the Senate floor for a vote. McConnell has so far refused to introduce the bill.
Senator McConnell’s legislative counsel, Tiffany Ge, invites them into a conference room, and for the next 80 minutes, pain and frustration roll through the room like a cloud of thunder. A Chicago mother speaks about losing two of her children to random shootings; a survivor of the Las Vegas mass shooting describes the whoosh of a bullet passing through her hair; another survivor describes his dismay when his daughter was taught how to survive a shooting in kindergarten. “Nothing has changed,” he cries out. After every story, Ge repeats the same phrase. “Thank you for sharing your story.”
Finally, McBath can’t take it anymore. “We are asking you to let the government work the way it should! It’s not a democracy if you won’t even bring it to the Senate for a vote. That’s not the rule of law. It’s the American people who decide law, and they are pressing us. I know this sounds harsh, but the blood of every person who gets shot is going to be on his hands.”
A few minutes after the meeting breaks up, McBath and I pass McConnell himself in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, a room with an 180-foot ceiling, a massive fresco, and sandstone floors—a room designed to remind you that government is big, individuals small.
“Senator McConnell,” she says, stopping him to introduce herself. “We were just in your office with a group of survivors urging you to bring H.R. 8 to a vote. ”
“Thank you, thank you for your visit,” he answers politely.
After he moves on, I tell McBath it was gutsy of her to stop him like that. “He needs to know that we’ll be back,” she responds. “We will never stop.”