Beto O’Rourke has become the most vocal proponent in the Democratic presidential field of strict gun control laws and confiscating military-style rifles, a stance that has reenergized his flagging campaign. But the former Texas congressman’s position is a direct reversal of the view he held before he launched his presidential bid.
“If you have an AR-15, keep it. I don’t want to take anyone’s guns away from them,” O’Rourke said in an August 2018 Austin Chronicle profile, during his unsuccessful Senate bid challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
During a Democratic presidential debate last week, O’Rourke, 46, delivered the opposite message. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47, we’re not going to allow it to be used on fellow Americans anymore,” he said.
O’Rourke has long supported expanding background checks for firearm purchases, closing background check loopholes, and banning the future sale of military-style rifles, measures supported by many Congressional Democrats. In 2016, he live-streamed a sit-in staged by House Democrats who tried to force a vote on gun control measures after Republicans turned off C-SPAN coverage.
But O’Rourke stressed on a number of occasions that he was opposed to confiscating existing military-style weapons.
“I’m all for shooting rattlesnakes,” O’Rourke told the Houston Chronicle last year. “I’m not for taking guns away from people.”
Another 2018 article noted that O’Rourke was “careful to stress he is not for taking guns away from anyone.” PolitiFact in March 2018 rated a claim from Cruz that O’Rourke wants to “take our guns” as false.
O’Rourke’s campaign attributed the change in position to the El Paso mass shooting in August, which was a turning point for his gun policy and campaign style
“After 22 people were killed and dozens more grievously injured in El Paso last month, Beto can no longer accept that an assault weapons ban will be enough to address the gun violence epidemic — especially when there are already more than 10 million assault weapons in communities across the country,” National Press Secretary Aleigha Cavalier told the Washington Examiner in a statement. “These weapons of war must be bought back or they will continue to be used against us.”
In addition to coming out in support of mandatory military-style rifle buybacks, O’Rourke also changed his position on federal firearm licensing.
When asked in May whether he agreed with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s plan to create a federal gun licensing system, O’Rourke said that Booker’s proposal “ may be too far.”
“I think relying on the responsibility and accountability that gun owners feel — matching that with universal background checks, stopping the sales of weapons of war, red flag laws — that’s the perfect way to complement the responsible gun ownership we see in the country right now,” O’Rourke said.
The next day, O’Rourke walked back his comment and said he was open to licensing. “As I’ve thought about it, I really think we should be looking at everything,” O’Rourke said. “If it is not politically feasible today, that should not disqualify it from consideration.”
In his gun policy platform released after the El Paso shooting, O’Rourke supports creating a national gun licensing system and registry. Individuals must be over the age of 21 to receive a license under the plan.
Many of O’Rourke’s primary opponents on the debate stage praised him for his strong statements after the El Paso shooting. But Booker, who has called his own gun control proposal the “most sweeping gun violence prevention plan ever put forth by a presidential candidate,” offered subtle criticism of O’Rourke’s shift.
“I’m happy that people like Beto O’Rourke are showing such courage now and coming forward and also supporting gun licensing,” Booker said during the debate. “I’m sorry that it had to take issues coming to my neighborhood or personally affecting Beto to make us demand change.”