COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the fourth round of Democratic debates, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke engaged in one of the most personal exchanges of the entire primary with a fellow Democrat, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The issue — whether or not the government should have a mandatory buyback program for assault-style weapons — elicited face-to-face tension that had been previously playing out on the campaign trail.
When asked about how he intended to implement his mandatory buyback program, O’Rourke essentially said he believed Americans “will do the right thing” and turn in the weapons.
“I expect my fellow Americans to follow the law,” he said. “We don't go door-to-door to do anything in this country to enforce the law.”
“If someone does not turn in an AR-15 or an AK-47 — one of these weapons or war — or brings out in public and brandishes it in an attempt to intimidate as we saw when we were at Kent State recently, then that weapon will be taken from them,” he added. “If they persist, then there will be other consequences from law enforcement. But the expectation is that Americans will follow the law.”
Buttigieg, who has been critical of O’Rourke’s proposals on this front, jumped on O’Rourke for not fleshing out this plan.
“Congressman, you just made it clear you don’t know this is actually going to take weapons off the streets,” he said. “If you can develop the plan further, we can have a debate about it. We can’t wait.”
Buttigieg added that Democrats ought to focus on policies like universal background checks and an assault weapon ban, rather than a confiscation policy.
“We cannot wait for purity tests,” he added. “We have to just get something done.”
O’Rourke argued that these policies are not mutually exclusive and said Democrats should “not be limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups ... to do what's right.”
That remark brought out a fierce response from Buttigieg, who is a combat veteran and openly gay man.
“The problem isn’t the polls. The problem is the policy,” he said. “And I don't need lessons from you on courage — political or personal.”
O’Rourke responded, charging Buttigieg’s criticisms as “a slap in the face” to gunshot victims.
The other Texan in the race, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro implicitly criticized O’Rourke on his gun policy, saying he was opposed to mandatory buybacks.
“Folks can’t define it,” he said. “And if you’re not going door-to-door, then it’s not really mandatory.”
Castro then brought up the weekend police shooting of Atatiana Jefferson in her Fort Worth home.
“A cop showed up at two in the morning to her house where she was playing video games with her nephew,” Castro said. “He didn’t even announce himself. And within four seconds he shot her and killed her through her own window ... I’m not going to give police officers another reason to go door-to-door in certain communities because police violence is also gun violence.”
Earlier in the night, O’Rourke went after Democratic frontrunner U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. While answering a question on tax policy O’Rourke criticized Warren’s lack of clarity on how she will pay for various policy proposals like Medicare For All.
“We need to be focused on lifting people up, and sometimes I think Sen. Warren is more focused on being punitive or pitting the country against the other, instead of lifting people up and making sure this country comes together around those solutions,” he said.
He later followed up, saying the Massachusetts senator “has yet to describe her tax plan,” and whether not average Americans will see a tax increase.
Warren responded, saying she was “shocked” that anyone would view her policies as punitive.
O’Rourke was not the only candidate who critiqued Warren for not stating whether she will raise taxes. Since the last debate, Warren has outpaced former Vice President Joe Biden in several recent polls. As such, she was the magnet for other candidates’ criticisms.
Buttigieg had a similar exchange with her earlier in the debate, and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota pushed back against Warren’s Medicare for All proposals.
After the O’Rourke exchange, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey implicitly fired back against him, arguing that Democratic candidates ought to avoid “tearing each other down.”
Early in the debate, O’Rourke and Castro, were largely absent from long stretches of discussion Tuesday night. The exclusions on the part of the CNN and New York Times moderators was indicative of their lower status in polling and momentum in this race.
The two men are in a fight for political survival. Neither Texan has met the polling threshold to qualify for the fifth debate, to be held in Georgia on Nov. 20.
The rest of the Democratic lineup included U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.