HOUSTON — Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke gave an unapologetic defense Thursday night of his proposed mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, delivering one of the standout moments at the third primary debate here.
"Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," the former El Paso congressman said. "We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore."
The blunt answer drew big cheers at Texas Southern University, which hosted the event. O'Rourke offered the buyback plan last month in the wake of the shooting targeting Hispanics in his hometown that left 22 people dead and two dozen injured. It immediately put O'Rourke to the left of most, if not all, of his rivals when it comes to combatting gun violence.
Speaking after O'Rourke at the debate, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said she "personally think[s] we should start with a voluntary buyback program."
O'Rourke paused his campaign in the wake of the El Paso massacre, and he earned plaudits Thursday night from multiple opponents for how he consoled his community during that time.
"Beto, God love you for standing so courageously in the midst of that tragedy," said Kamala Harris, the U.S. senator from California.
After the El Paso attack, O'Rourke blamed Trump and his rhetoric for fueling the gunman, who left behind an anti-immigrant manifesto. O'Rourke pressed that argument at the debate, saying there is a "white supremacist in the White House, and he poses a mortal threat to people of color all across the country."
O'Rourke has called the shooting a turning point for his campaign, a point that he stressed throughout his opening statement. Following the massacre, O'Rourke said, "we have to be bigger, we have to see clearly, we have to speak honestly and we have to act decisively."
O'Rourke's campaign moved quickly to capitalize on his more distinct comments from the debate, and within minutes began selling a T-shirt featuring his "hell yes" quote. The campaign also overhauled his website to feature a graphic calling Trump a white supremacist. The campaign put another graphic on Twitter, this one showing an assault rifle and offering a spin on rival Elizabeth Warren's slogan that she has a "plan for that."
"Beto has a ban for that," the graphic said.
Such a proposal is deeply unpopular among conservatives and Second Amendment advocates, however. In a post on Twitter that generated immediate pushback after the debate, state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, shared O'Rourke's quote with a threatening message using O'Rourke's given name: "My AR is ready for you Robert Francis."
O'Rourke responded soon after: "This is a death threat, Representative. Clearly, you shouldn't own an AR-15—and neither should anyone else."
Disclosure: Texas Southern University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.