DENVER—Tom Sullivan, a Colorado state lawmaker whose son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, met Beto O’Rourke one cloudless morning in September and, inside a glass-and-brick office building in downtown Denver, introduced him to several other people whose friends or relatives had been killed in mass shootings.
They were seated at a table in a third-floor conference room of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, beside a largely untouched basket of bagels and a box of Starbucks coffee. Jane Dougherty, whose sister Mary Sherlach was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, brought up the moment, at a presidential debate in Houston the previous week, when O’Rourke had said, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
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“I think I was jumping around in my family room, because my sister was murdered by an AR-15,” Dougherty said.
Coni Sanders, whose father, Dave, was killed in the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, where he was a teacher, said she had rushed toward the television in her living room, hurting her head on a door jamb before sitting down on the floor and watching in disbelief. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Sanders said. Brandon Kellogg, a student at Columbine during the massacre, said that, sitting on his couch watching the debate that night, he cried.
In March, when the former Texas congressman entered the presidential race amid soaring expectations, his biggest liability was a perceived lack of solemnity. That perception was reinforced by a meandering road trip throughout the Southwest, a “born to be in it” Vanity Fair cover story, and a penchant for standing on tables and chairs. Then, he sank in public opinion polls, watched his fundraising fall off and drifted throughout the early stages of the primary, overwhelmed by a field of more experienced competitors.
But now O’Rourke, while still running far behind in the 2020 field, finds himself at the center of one of the Democratic primary’s gravest and most divisive policy disputes. After the shooting massacre at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, in August, O’Rourke proposed a mandatory buyback of all assault weapons—a kind of eminent domain for guns. The proposal—and the pressure it has put on his competitors to respond—has amplified the gun control discussion in the 2020 primary and pushed it further to the left. And O’Rourke’s intense focus on the issue, including events like the one in Denver, has given his faltering campaign new meaning.
“We have to continue to keep this issue front and center if we’re going to make any progress on it,” O’Rourke told me recently over pasta at Fish Nor Fowl, a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s east end, during a campaign swing through Pennsylvania on the day he turned 47. “And I have an opportunity to do that.”
How long O’Rourke will have that opportunity is unclear. He is polling at 2 percent or 3 percent nationally in the primary. And, he told me, “I cannot fathom a scenario where I would run for public office again if I’m not the nominee.”
Barring upheaval in the primary, O’Rourke’s focus on gun control will not make him president. More than that, he might be hurting his own crusade. His buyback proposal thrust him into conflict, not only with President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association, but with some of his party’s leaders, who fear O’Rourke will alienate moderate voters and hinder Democrats’ ability to negotiate more modest gun reforms in Congress, especially if the Senate remains in Republican hands after the 2020 election.
“Dummy Beto made it much harder to make a deal,” Trump tweeted last month, and many Democrats on Capitol Hill agreed.
O’Rourke acknowledges that calling for a mandatory buyback “may be politically difficult” and “might diminish our prospects in the next election, whether you’re a member of Congress or whether you’re a candidate for the presidency.” But he also believes his critics are misreading shifts in public opinion. Near the end of the meeting in Denver, he pledged, “I’m in all the way.”
Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter was killed in Aurora, told O’Rourke that he had “stepped in shit.”
“They’re going to come after you,” Phillips said, while assuring O’Rourke that he has “an army behind you.”
“You don’t back down,” he added.
O’Rourke no longer owns a gun, but he grew up around them in West Texas. He told me his father, Pat, kept a handgun in his sock drawer and an inherited “arsenal” of handguns, shotguns and rifles in a basement closet. O’Rourke used to take a .22-caliber rifle into the desert to shoot bottles and cans, and he has gone hunting with friends.
Early in his near-miss Senate run against Ted Cruz last year, a friend advised O’Rourke to “make sure that you’re seen in church every Sunday, make sure that they get a picture of you wearing boots and carrying a gun around,” O’Rourke said. “And I was just like, you know what, none of that is me. I don’t go to church every Sunday. I don’t carry a gun. I don’t have a gun.”
During his Senate campaign, O’Rourke supported renewed efforts to pass an assault weapons ban. But running in a Republican- and gun-rich state, he repeatedly said he had no desire to take weapons from people who already owned them. Early in his presidential run, O’Rourke pursued a standard Democratic menu of gun reforms, including universal background checks and red-flag laws.
The idea of a mandatory buyback, he said, “just was not part of the dialogue. And it doesn’t justify the position or make it OK … but that is, perhaps like a lot of people, where I was.”
That changed after a gunman wielding an AK-47-style rifle killed 22 people in El Paso. On the morning of the shooting, O’Rourke was speaking at a labor forum in Las Vegas and became shaken when the first reports of deaths came in. “Keep that shit on the battlefield,” he pleaded, before suspending his campaign and returning home to mourn the victims and meet with survivors.
Then he asked himself, “What is the most that we could possibly do?”
Gathered around his dinner table one day, he said he told a clutch of advisers, “I can’t escape the conclusion that if we want to stop selling these, then we should also buy the 10 million or more that are out there off the streets. I said, ‘Give me the best argument against this.’ And the only real argument against it was a political argument.”
Until the El Paso shooting, O’Rourke told me, “I never forced myself to answer the question, ‘If it’s important to stop selling these, then shouldn’t we do something to address the fact that there are those weapons of war out on the streets or in people’s homes that can and will be used against us?’ And I don’t know how to say it other than, ‘The reason I never asked myself that question is I just never entertained the possibility that it was possible.”
O’Rourke is now calling for a mandatory buyback for assault weapons and a voluntary buyback for handguns. The funding for the buybacks, he says, would come from increasing the excise tax on gun manufacturers and increasing fines on traffickers. People who do not sell back their assault weapons would be fined.
The proposal is similar to a policy advanced by one of his former competitors, California Congressman Eric Swalwell. Now it is O’Rourke arguing, as Swalwell did with less notice, that Democrats have approached gun control negotiations all wrong, by allowing gun rights activists to frame the parameters of the debate. At a recent campaign event, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, an early O’Rourke supporter, told me, “I’m proud of the fearless way that my candidate is speaking the truth to people.” Swalwell said O’Rourke’s “Hell yes” answer “gave me goosebumps.” And David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter that O’Rourke “is really moving on this issue of banning assault weapons. Very, very powerful.”
At his rallies, O’Rourke still swivels from impeachment and climate change to immigration and jobs. He is not a single-issue candidate. But it is on gun control that he is distinguishing himself. He told me he “can certainly tell from the way that people have responded and their passion around gun violence, that this has resonated, and that they associate me with this issue.”
During an early October town hall at Casa del Mexicano, a cultural center in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood, an elderly woman in the crowd winced when O’Rourke described the impact of an AR-15 or an AK-47, saying, “You talk to the surgeons who treat the victims, and they say it just shreds to shit everything inside of your body.” A high school student told O’Rourke that “all of my friends are scared” that they will be shot at school, and asked him, “What do we do?” O’Rourke, sweating through his shirt, his sleeves rolled up, told her, “We are not going to accept what is happening right now,” and he suggested that young people would alter the politics surrounding the issue. A cheer went up when he repeated his “Hell, yes,” refrain.
For the purposes of the election, an adviser to one of O’Rourke’s competitors told me, “He did the smart thing, which was to take the pure position.”
The adviser added, “I don’t know quite what it’s adding up to.”
For a Democratic presidential candidate, taking a stand on gun control would appear to be advantageous.
Bulletproof backpacks hit the market, active shooter drills have become commonplace in schools, and gun policy ranks among Democratic voters’ top concerns. Forty-five percent of Americans worry they or someone in their family will be victimized in a mass shooting, according to Gallup. In the midterm elections last year, Everytown for Gun Safety, the pro-gun control group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spent millions of dollars, and gun control advocates claimed a number of victories in congressional swing districts.
“The myth that gun safety is the ‘third rail’ of American politics, I think, is buried,” says John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president. “Candidates are now running on their gun safety credentials from Day 1. … That’s just a seismic shift.”
A Quinnipiac University poll released in August found that 60 percent of voters support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons, and 82 percent favor requiring people to be licensed before purchasing a gun. Support for a mandatory assault weapon buyback program is more mixed—46 percent, according to Quinnipiac, or 52 percent according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. But support for a mandatory buyback soars among Democratic voters, reaching 71 percent in the Quinnipiac poll. Even in Texas, 49 percent of the state’s voters support a mandatory buyback, according to a University of Texas, Tyler, poll released after the Houston debate.
O’Rourke, who frequently cites the Texas poll, told me, “That’s amazing. That’s without any money being spent to support that position. That’s without—with the exception of Eric Swalwell—without a single national political figure advocating for or endorsing the idea. So that’s just where people are.”
Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have expressed support for a mandatory gun buyback, but the vast majority of the Democratic candidates have not. The field’s early front-runner, Vice President Joe Biden, came close to endorsing the idea over the summer, in a CNN interview, before his campaign clarified that Biden supports a voluntary—not a mandatory—buyback. He has since proposed giving people who own assault weapons or high-capacity magazines a choice: sell them back or register them.
Other candidates don’t just oppose buybacks; they also criticize O’Rourke for advocating one. At a gun control forum in Las Vegas in early October, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said buybacks have had “mixed results” and questioned the utility of pursuing them.
“We’ve got to do something now,” Buttigieg said. “And we have a way sometimes as a party—my party—of getting caught just when we’ve amassed the discipline and the force to get something done right away, a shiny object makes it harder for us to focus.”
When O’Rourke appeared at the forum that same afternoon, he condemned Buttigieg’s rhetoric. To “those who are worried about the polls and want to triangulate or talk to the consultants or listen to the focus groups—and I’m thinking about Mayor Pete on this one, who I think probably wants to get to the right place but is afraid of doing the right thing right now—to those who need a weatherman, let me tell you that in this country, mandatory buybacks are supported by a majority of Americans,” he said.
O’Rourke told me, “I think that the political leadership, including Democrats, has not caught up to where the people are on this.”
The reaction to his “Hell, yes” moment underscores his point. Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island said on Fox News after the debate that O’Rourke’s “message doesn’t help,” while Senator Chris Coons of Delaware told CNN, “I frankly think that that clip will be played for years at Second Amendment rallies with organizations that try to scare people by saying Democrats are coming for your guns.”
“The issue that a lot of gun owners have is that they think Democrats want to take away their guns,” says Mathew Littman, a former Biden speechwriter who now supports Harris and works on gun reform. “So, saying that you want to take away their guns may prove that they’re right. And the problem with it is gun owners and non-gun owners agree on so many things that we could do—universal background checks, red-flag laws. Why don’t we start on the areas we agree upon?”
Sure enough, Republicans pounced on O’Rourke for his buyback plan. A GOP state representative in Texas tweeted, “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis,” while the state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, rejoiced that O’Rourke “will never be a threat in Texas politics again.” John Thomas, a Republican strategist, told me he is using O’Rourke’s remarks to raise money for congressional races in New York, California and Michigan.
“Beto has fundamentally shifted the messaging on guns in the Democratic primary going forward,” Thomas says. “If you’re a second-tier candidate in the next debate, why wouldn’t you go even a step further than that? Say, ‘Yes, why stop there? We’ve got to do the sin tax on guns, tax ammunition and guns, and give the proceeds to gun victims.’”
O’Rourke could have expected blowback from the right, but he was incredulous at the Democratic criticism of his plan. After Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader with a long record on gun control, brushed aside mandatory buybacks, saying, “I don’t know of any other Democrat who agrees with Beto O’Rourke,” the candidate responded by telling reporters to “ask Chuck Schumer what he’s been able to get done.”
“Somebody told me—I don’t know if this is true—that the average attention span nationally on gun violence after a horrific mass shooting is three weeks,” O’Rourke said at our dinner in Pittsburgh. He said he does not sense that this time—not for the electorate and, he added, “Not for me.”
Yet it is possible that national attention has already moved past O’Rourke two months after the El Paso shooting and one month after the Houston debate. After the impeachment inquiry into Trump engulfed Washington, Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who had been in talks with the White House on gun control, acknowledged that the turmoil “may temporarily be the end of the road for a lot of legislative initiatives,” including on guns. In the presidential campaign, the topic has reverted from its once-charged status to its usual, less prominent place among other priorities.
O’Rourke, like many congressional observers, was never optimistic for negotiations with Trump on gun control. Long before Democrats opened their impeachment inquiry, the Republican president spurned a universal background checks bill passed by the House. Talks between Democrats and the White House, O’Rourke said, “never seemed on.”
O’Rourke’s own proposal has been criticized as politically impractical or potentially unconstitutional. When CNN’s Chris Cuomo told O’Rourke last month that he doubted the legality of mandatory buybacks, O’Rourke replied that under the Second Amendment, “the government does have a power to regulate those kinds of weapons that are extraordinarily unusual or deadly.” He told Cuomo he is “willing to fight that one all the way to the end.”
The measure O’Rourke is proposing, he says, is not unlike laws banning any other illegal weapon or substance. “We don’t go door to door to enforce any part of the criminal code,” he told me, “nor would we in this case.” When asked whether penalties could include imprisonment, he said, “A fine, certainly. I don’t know about imprisonment. But it’s something that I’d like to listen to.”
In its uncertainty—surrounding the specifics of the legislation that O’Rourke would support, as well as its prospect of passage—O’Rourke’s proposal is not unlike plans advanced by Democrats on any number of issues, including health care and climate change. And politicians of both parties have long found political value in advancing agendas that are not immediately likely to pass.
Although O’Rourke’s buybacks proposal has had little effect on his campaign’s weak polling, it has allowed him to “put a mark in the book on something relevant,” says Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist. “It takes him out of the abyss and puts him on the trampoline to another office.”
O’Rourke, for now, rejects that possibility. When I pressed at our dinner in Pittsburgh whether any other political office might appeal to him—if not a run for Senate, which he has consistently resisted, perhaps Texas governor, even mayor of El Paso—O’Rourke said no. “I can’t tell you all the reasons why,” he said. “I just can’t even imagine.”
“No,” he said. “I’m running for president.”
If he doesn’t win the presidency, O’Rourke said that “in whatever way I can contribute, I’m going to do that.”
He recalled Lonnie Phillips telling him in Denver that if O’Rourke stopped talking about gun control, he would be “pissed,” and Sean Whalen, a pediatric dentist whose patient was shot to death last year, warning him that “if you lose this election or you don’t get the nomination, if you walk away from this, I would be personally offended.”
O’Rourke told me, “I’m in this for the long haul.”