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Beto O’Rourke renews calls for tougher gun laws after Uvalde shooting, including on assault weapons

Democratic candidate for governor Beto O'Rourke watches a press conference held by Gov. Greg Abbott and other statewide and local Republicans at Uvalde High School on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Sergio Flores
The Texas Tribune
Democratic candidate for governor Beto O'Rourke watches a press conference held by Gov. Greg Abbott and other statewide and local Republicans at Uvalde High School on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

O’Rourke became known on the presidential campaign trail for his “Hell yes” promise to ban assault weapons. He’s been less vocal about the policy in his run for governor but this week, after the school shooting in Uvalde, he’s been newly assertive about the issue.

After the massacre in Uvalde, Beto O’Rourke is again picking up the mantle of an issue that has been front-and-center in his recent political career — and just as central to Republican attacks against him: gun control.

After the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in his El Paso hometown, O’Rourke famously called for a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, proclaiming, “Hell yes,” he wanted to take those firearms. He was running in the 2020 presidential primary at the time, and while he has not renounced his support for that proposal, in his bid for governor he has focused on other, less contentious ideas to curb gun violence, such as universal background checks.

Throughout his campaign, he has said civilians should not have such weapons.

But last week, while visiting Uvalde, O’Rourke was newly assertive about the topic, advocating for a ban and rattling off a list proposed gun laws to reporters outside of Gov. Greg Abbott’s own news conference.

“It is insane that we allow an 18-year-old to go in and buy an AR-15. What the hell did we think he was gonna do with that?” O’Rourke said Wednesday in an emotional and angry exchange with reporters in Uvalde that was evocative of his comments to the media following the El Paso shooting.

“Right there, if you want a solution, stop selling AR-15s in the state of Texas,” O’Rourke added, standing outside of Uvalde High School.

On Wednesday in Dallas, O’Rourke is set to hold his first campaign town hall since the shooting, followed by similar events in Austin and San Antonio. They are expected to focus on “protecting Texas kids” and how Abbott has allegedly failed to do so on more than just gun violence. For example, O’Rourke has also accused Abbott of neglecting Texas children when it comes to the state’s long-beleaguered foster care system.

O'Rourke is expected to continue emphasizing the proposals that have been part of his anti-gun violence platform so far.

"Beto believes that we should act immediately to prevent the next mass shooting by prioritizing commonsense gun safety reforms that have broad, bipartisan support across the state," O'Rourke campaign spokesperson Chris Evans said in a statement. "This includes popular policies such as repealing permitless carry, passing universal background checks, implementing red flag laws, enacting safe storage laws, and keeping weapons of war on the battlefield by preventing their sale in our communities."

Abbott’s campaign declined to comment for this story, saying the governor was focused on the state response to the Uvalde shooting.

But prior to the tragedy in Uvalde, Abbott had been relentlessly attacking O’Rourke over his “Hell yes” comment, even before he launched his campaign for governor. His campaign has called O’Rourke an “anti-gun extremist.”

When O’Rourke began his gubernatorial campaign last year, he told reporters he was not backing away from his support for the buyback proposal. But he has not actively campaigned on it, and in at least one instance — during a February campaign stop in Tyler — O’Rourke distanced himself from the idea, saying he is “not interested in taking anything from anyone.”

Instead, O’Rourke’s current platform on the issue centers on his opposition to the law that Abbott signed last year allowing permitless carry of handguns, which polls show is unpopular. In addition to universal background checks, O’Rourke has also campaigned on “red flag” and safe-storage laws.

Still, when questioned about assault weapons on the campaign trail, O’Rourke often says he does not believe civilians should have them. He reiterated that during a veterans town hall in Killeen the day before the Uvalde shooting, where an audience member asked O’Rourke about his stance on AR-15s and said he thought O’Rourke had “changed or softened your stance on that.”

“My position on this is consistent, and I know that not everyone here is gonna agree with me,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t think any civilian should own an AR-15 or AK-47.”

O’Rourke steered clear of the buyback idea in the rest of his answer, pivoting to universal background checks, safe-storage laws and his opposition to permitless carry.

O’Rourke’s campaign recently edited a section of its website on guns to strengthen his position against assault weapons. The section had said as recently as April 1 that he wants to “reduce” the amount of those weapons on the street. It now says, “I don’t believe any civilian should own an AR-15 or AK-47.” A campaign spokesperson said the language change was “part of a routine update to our website in the spring that included aligning the campaign’s issue page with how Beto consistently talks” about topics on the campaign trail. A video that was on the same page before and after the change featured O’Rourke saying he does not believe civilians should carry assault weapons.

O’Rourke already sought to channel the anger of Texans who want gun control when he disrupted a news conference Wednesday in Uvalde, telling Abbott that he was “doing nothing” to stop the violence. And two days later, he spoke at a counter-rally outside the National Rifle Association convention in Houston, inviting NRA members to join him in preventing gun violence but saying that the “time … is now.”

While Abbott has largely ignored O’Rourke in public comments since the shooting, other Republican leaders have not held their tongues. Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin called O’Rourke a “sick son of a bitch” as O’Rourke interrupted the news conference, where McLaughlin was among those flanking Abbott.

O’Rourke “made a total ass of himself” at the news conference, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Saturday on Fox News. “He put himself above these families.”

Abbott has put political activities on hold since it came out last week that he stopped by a campaign fundraiser in East Texas in the hours after the Uvalde shooting. He has not addressed O’Rourke directly since the massacre but has resisted gun control as a response to it.

Abbott canceled an in-person appearance at the NRA convention, opting instead for a video message while he returned to Uvalde on Friday. O’Rourke had called on Abbott to withdraw from the conference.

Texas voters are not as opposed to gun restrictions as their leaders are. Pollsters at the University of Texas at Austin have asked voters nine times since 2015 whether they believe the state’s gun laws should be more or less strict, and each time a plurality or majority has expressed support for more stringent laws.

When O’Rourke was running for president in fall 2019, the same pollsters found that 59% of Texas voters support a “nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons.”

There has not been much polling in Texas on the buyback proposal. But a September 2019 survey from the Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler found nearly half of voters — 49% — supported a “mandatory buyback program to turn in all assault weapons for payment.” Twenty-nine percent opposed the idea, while 18% were neutral and 5% were not sure.

Regardless of the polling, Republicans see O’Rourke’s support of the buybacks as a political winner for themselves, at least when it comes to energizing their base. On the campaign trail, Abbott jokes about how often voters can expect to see O’Rourke’s “Hell yes” comment replayed in Abbott’s campaign commercials this fall.

“In October, you’re gonna say, ‘Man, if I have to see that freakin’ ad again … I’m gonna shoot Abbott myself,’” the governor said during an April appearance in San Antonio.

O’Rourke’s supporters say he is channeling the raw anger that many Texans feel in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde.

“I think he speaks for a lot of Texans right now,” said Nancy Thompson, an Austin mother who is the founder of Mothers Against Greg Abbott. “I think he came on pretty strong and he’s speaking up, and even though he’s a candidate, he’s a Texan, he’s a citizen and I think he speaks for a lot of us who have kids, including himself.”

Thompson added that O’Rourke has been campaigning on gun policies that enjoy broad support, but that “no matter what Beto O’Rourke says, the far right, the Republicans, are always going to take his positions and his words out of context.”

Liz Hanks, the Texas chapter lead for Moms Demand Action, said O’Rourke has been “doing all the things I want him to be doing” since the Uvalde shooting. She said her organization sees broad support for proposals like universal background checks and “red flag” laws, while acknowledging that laws targeting assault weapons may not be as realistic in Texas.

“People can feel however they feel about it, but I think we can make a lot more progress on these other issues,” Hanks said. “Let’s focus on these things first.”

Patrick Svitek is a reporter for the Texas Tribune. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.