Beto O’Rourke’s Attempt to Shift the Overton Window on Guns

How Beto O’Rourke, a firmly second-tier candidate in the 2020 race, may move the Democratic conversation on guns after tonight’s debate in Houston

Win McNamee / Getty

They’re coming to take your guns away. That’s the line conservatives have long used as a scare tactic in the United States gun debate. (It’s the go-to hyperbole for the National Rifle Association.) Democrats have always contorted themselves to dodge this specific claim, afraid of legal challenges in the long term and, in the near term, alienating moderate voters who care about their Second Amendment rights. But former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas is no longer shying away from this charge.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said during the third presidential debate in Houston tonight. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore.”

O’Rourke is a solidly second-tier candidate in the Democratic primary race: He has consistently won roughly 2 to 3 percent of voters surveyed in national polls. Nevertheless, he may have a distinctive role to play in the coming months. After his hometown of El Paso, Texas, was hit by a deadly mass shooting in a Walmart, the former congressman has pivoted his 2020 campaign to focus primarily on guns. His impassioned arguments for gun control, born from his lived experience of leaving the campaign trail to sit with the victims of gun violence and their families, may set the Democratic conversation around guns, not least because O’Rourke’s competitors seem eager to hand him the mic and listen.

[Read: Beto O’Rourke has a new case to make to voters]

Guns came up early in tonight’s debate, in part because the issue has been on people’s minds lately: The early-August El Paso shooting devastated the largely Hispanic Catholic community on the border, while twin shootings in Midland and Odessa left seven people dead and at least 21 injured just a couple of weeks ago. Tonight, as candidates began discussing their plans to end America’s seemingly endless spree of mass shootings, something remarkable happened: Again and again, they turned to O’Rourke, commending him on how he has handled the aftermath of the latest violence in his home state.

The moderator then turned to O’Rourke. In a question about O’Rourke’s proposed gun-buyback program, the moderator spoke directly to conservatives’ central fear: that gun-reform proposals are really just an excuse for the government to get rid of Americans’ guns. So, O’Rourke was asked, “Are you proposing taking away their guns?”

The former congressman was unapologetic. “I am,” he said, “if it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield.” And there may be room for compromise, he said: Attendees at a recent gun show he visited in Conway, Arkansas, were open to his proposals to limit the distribution of weapons such as AR-15s. “Let’s do the right thing,” he said, and “bring everyone in America into the conversation—Republicans, Democrats, gun owners, and non-gun-owners alike.”

According to public-opinion polling, O’Rourke is right, at least to an extent: Strong majorities of Americans from both parties, including those who own guns and those who don’t, agree on policies like implementing basic background checks, although there’s less consensus on banning “assault-style weapons” and high-capacity magazines. So far in this Democratic primary race, as in his failed bid to become a U.S. senator in 2018, O’Rourke has not been a consensus-focused candidate; he has tried to appeal to the left.

O’Rourke’s experience in El Paso may have permanently shifted his presidential bid, and perhaps his political career. When he speaks about this issue, he appears to speak from the heart. The Democratic presidential candidates agree that they have to do something about how guns are bought and sold in America. In the end, O’Rourke may not make it to the White House, but on this issue, he may lead the way.