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Still raw from a deadly mass shooting that took place in his hometown of El Paso, Beto O’Rourke unapologetically defended his support for a mandatory assault weapon buyback program at a September 2019 debate in Houston.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke famously said to roaring applause from a crowd at Texas Southern University. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”
At the time, the former congressman was seeking the Democratic nomination for president, trying to distinguish himself among primary voters in a wide field of candidates. Now, he’s running for governor in a state with the most gun owners in the nation against an incumbent who routinely touts his record on relaxing firearm restrictions.
In an interview with The Texas Tribune to announce his run, O’Rourke said he won’t be backing down from his message on guns. He also said many Texans who support gun rights, regardless of party, agree that most people shouldn’t have access to assault rifles.
“Most of us understand the responsibility that comes with owning a firearm, and we will vigorously protect that Second Amendment right and also protect the lives of those around us,” he said. “But I think most of us also understand that we should not have military-style weapons used against our fellow Texans. We have four of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history right here in Texas that took place over the last five years.”
O’Rourke also turned the tables on Abbott, accusing him of being the one to promote “extremist” gun policies when he signed the permitless carry bill into law this year allowing most Texans to carry handguns without training or a license.
“What I think you’ll also find is most Texans reject Greg Abbott’s extreme, divisive policies when it comes to firearms, like signing the law for the permitless carry bill,” he said, adding that the bill was opposed by members of law enforcement worried it could endanger officers.
O’Rourke made his iconic gun statement at the third Democratic presidential debate, which fell about five weeks after a gunman went on a shooting rampage at an El Paso Walmart targeting Hispanic people. The shooter killed 23 people in what federal law enforcement classified as an act of domestic terrorism.
The tragedy prompted O’Rourke to suspend his presidential campaign events and anchor himself in the city he represented for six years in Congress and six other years on the El Paso City Council.
O’Rourke told The Atlantic the event changed his approach to the presidential race. And the refrain — “Hell yes” — became a T-shirt and fundraising tool for a presidential campaign that ended several weeks after the debate performance.
Jordan Berry, a GOP political consultant, said O’Rourke is compromised in Texas.
Texans take the Second Amendment “really seriously,” he said, adding that his gun stance will “hurt him across the board,” particularly with swing voters.
But in 2019, a poll found that there were more Texans who said they supported a mandatory buyback program to turn in all assault weapons than those who opposed it. Nearly half of Texans supported the buyback program, while about 29% said they opposed it, according to a poll by the University of Texas at Tyler. The rest of the respondents either were neutral or unsure.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll from October 2019 found that 59% of Texas voters support a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons, compared to 33% who oppose the policy. The approval rating included 86% of Democrats, 56% of independents and 35% of Republicans.
For Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT, the idea that O’Rourke is in “grave danger” with Texans on the issue of gun control is overly simplistic.
In fact, Blank said Republicans pushing gun legislation in the first legislative session after the El Paso shooting may have given O’Rourke an “entry point” on the issue.
Some 55% of voters polled in October said they disapproved of a new Texas permitless carry law that allows most Texans to carry handguns without training or a license.
“In a vacuum, Beto’s comments certainly create a challenge for him in Texas,” Blank said. “But considered in the context of the Legislature passing permitless carry, which has majority opposition, and in the first legislative session after the mass shootings … I think it is a conversation that Beto is willing to have.”
Democrats in rural Midland and Taylor counties — both of which supported U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz over O’Rourke in 2018 by about three-fourths of the vote — said they’re not turned off by O’Rourke’s gun stance.
Midland Democratic Party Chair Cathy Broadrick worked for the federal prison system for 20 years and had to qualify annually to operate a variety of weapons, including the M16, a rifle similar to the AR-15.
While she doesn’t look down on gun enthusiasts who want to shoot such weapons — noting the “blood pumping” fun there is to be had — Broadrick said such automatic rifles shouldn’t be accessible to all.
“I understand all these people that scream freedom and their constitutional rights,” said Broadrick, a self-described country girl who hunted birds. “But if you’ve ever stood on the firing line and you’ve shot an M16, you realize the power that that weapon holds.”
For his part, O’Rourke said he too grew up in a family of responsible gun owners.
“Most of us grew up with firearms. I did at my house, where my dad kept a gun for protection, where we had guns for hunting, where I was taught how to safely use a gun by my great uncle Raymond, who was sheriff’s deputy and the jail captain at the El Paso County jail,” he said.
While Broadrick acknowledged that Democrats have debated the wisdom of O’Rourke’s comments, she doesn’t think his words will damage his political future because she believes few Texans own AR-15s.
The people who supported O’Rourke in his 2018 Senate campaign will still turn out for him this cycle, Broadrick added.
“I think Republicans will try to make an issue of it, but Beto wasn’t going to get those voters anyway,” she said.
Taylor County Democratic Party Chair Elizabeth Smyser said she hopes Texans interested in solutions to gun violence will have compassion for the spirit with which O’Rourke tackled this issue, noting the suffering he witnessed in El Paso. Smyser said while there may be some single-issue voters on guns that O’Rourke has lost, there is also a sizable “middle ground.”
“Those people in the middle that see and have heard the stories of all the gun violence and that are tired of kids getting mowed down in their classrooms or don’t want to see Latinos getting targeted again — there are a lot of people that feel that those things are far more extreme than what Beto said off the cuff in a moment of despair,” Smyser said.
The rural Democrats said they expect O’Rourke to still be popular among Democrats and other voters in the race.
“The minute I say the word ‘Beto,’ I know I’m gonna have 200 people show up,” Broadrick said. “And in red Midland, Texas, that’s substantial — in an area with 80% Republican, mostly, that you can still get a lot of people to turn out.”
Disclosure: Texas Southern University - Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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.