Lucy McBath used to walk the halls of Congress as the grieving mother of a slain teenager, urging lawmakers to take steps to reduce gun violence.
Wednesday, the freshman member of Congress presided over the House floor as lawmakers observed a moment of silence for the 17 students and staff killed at a mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year.
And then a teary McBath joined fellow House Judiciary Committee members in approving, along party-lines, a bill expanding background checks required for firearm purchases.
“It is a beginning,” McBath, D-Ga., said during the committee’s deliberations.
Colleagues hugged her as the votes were tallied after Democrats fended off hours of amendments and objections by committee Republicans.
Under her white suit jacket with the lapel pin designating her as a member of Congress, McBath wore a red top, matching the color of the “Moms Demand Action” T-shirts worn by activists watching from the audience chairs where McBath used to sit.
The vote was held one day before the anniversary of the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and three days before her son’s birthday.
"The pain of losing a child to gun violence never ends," she said last week at a hearing on preventing gun violence.
Jordan Davis was shot to death at a Florida gas station in 2012 after the killer complained about the loud music coming from the teen’s car.
After his death, the former flight attendant said, she dedicated her life to advocating for solutions. McBath was the national spokeswoman for the advocacy groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.
But it was the Parkland shooting that finally motivated McBath to run for Congress.
McBath won a suburban Atlanta district once represented by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Her narrow 50.5 percent victory has already made her a top target for Republicans for the 2020 elections.
Everytown for Gun Safety spent about $4 million on advertising and other support for McBath, part of the money and activism around the issue that helped Democrats retake the House.
“We see this as something that is demanded,” Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said of gun control legislation Wednesday. “We saw it coming out of the midterms.”
The full House could vote on the legislation later this month.
But even the background check bill, which has more public support than some other proposed gun restrictions, faces a tough road in the Republican-controlled Senate.
A similar measure didn’t survive a bipartisan filibuster when Democrats ran the Senate in 2013.
McBath testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that year, arguing against “stand your ground” laws such as Florida’s statute allowing people not involved in illegal activity to use deadly force if they reasonably believe it’s necessary to avoid death or great bodily harm.
The killer of McBath’s son claimed self defense but was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
McBath told senators in 2013 that if her father, a civil rights activist who headed the Illinois chapter of the NAACP, could have seen her testimony, he would have been beaming with pride and amazed at how far his daughter had come – until he realized the reason why.
Some will say that her son was killed because of an argument over loud music, McBath told senators.
“But I believe that it was about the availability of guns and eagerness to hate,” she said.
McBath also shared her story from the stage of the 2016 Democratic National Convention as one of the “Mothers of the Movement.”
After winning her own race last fall, McBath tweeted: “Absolutely nothing – no politician & no special interest – is more powerful than a mother on a mission.”
Her first speech on the House floor after being sworn in was in support of the background check legislation. The bill was introduced on the anniversary of the January 8, 2011 mass shooting in Arizona that left six dead and that severely wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords and 12 others. Giffords co-founded a gun-control group with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly who announced a bid for the Senate Tuesday.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to expand required background checks to include private firearm sales, such as those at gun shows and over the internet. The panel also approved legislation to extend the time firearms dealers must wait for a response from the background check system.
Committee Republicans argued that universal background checks are worthless unless they are paired with a national gun registry, and that would intrude on gun owners’ rights.
They noted the legislation would not have prevented the mass shooting in Parkland, where the defendant had passed a background check.
And Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said the cost of a background check – which can be as much as $125 in some states – could prevent poor people in high-crime areas from being able to defend themselves.
“You shouldn’t put fees that could prevent our nation’s poor from being able to observe a Constitutional right,” Gohmert said.
McBath expressed skepticism that Gohmert’s amendment to allow people to trade firearms without using the background check system was offered out of concern for people living in poverty. Those in poorer communities are harmed most by gun violence, she said, so they have the most to gain “from laws that make us safer.”
“It does not answer every means of identifying how we’re going to make people safer,” McBath said of the legislation. “But it is a deterrent. It is a beginning. It’s one of the most basic ways to keep guns out of the hands out of people who should not have them.”