Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) full-throated endorsement of a mandatory gun buyback proposal has raised alarms among Democrats.
They see the presidential candidate’s proposal as playing into Republican hands and putting Democratic candidates on the back foot. They also say it could be used by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to raise money and members, and to fight efforts to impose tougher background checks and other measures that might reduce gun violence.
“I think we should be focused on the stuff that we can get across the finish line and I think that was a bit of a gift to the NRA,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) told The Hill.
The NRA already has unleashed a slew of attack ads this week seizing on O’Rourke’s plan. One such ad dubbed the former Texas congressman “the AR-15 salesman of the month,” suggesting that his comments would prompt a rush to buy the rifle.
Speaking at a news conference outside the Capitol on Wednesday, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) railed against O’Rourke’s proposal, calling it “the first step in a full confiscation” of Americans’ firearms and insisting that O’Rourke’s views were representative of Democrats’ broader plans for gun control.
“Let’s give him points for honesty,” Massie said in response to a question posed by The Hill. “That is what nearly every person in there that’s for what they call ‘common sense gun control’ would prefer. They would prefer to take every single gun back. That is a recipe for destroying this country, is what that is.”
O’Rourke made headlines at the September Democratic debate in Texas when he said, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” The remarks followed a shooting at his home city of El Paso, Texas, that left 22 people dead.
Under O’Rourke’s plan, Americans who own assault-style weapons would be required to sell them back to the government. Anyone who refuses or fails to forfeit those firearms would be fined. He has also proposed a licensing system in which gun owners would have to complete firearms safety training and register their weapons.
It’s unclear whether O’Rourke’s plan will help his presidential run, which has been stuck in the mud. His campaign has pointed to recent polling data that suggests support for a mandatory buyback program.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released earlier this month showed 52 percent back such a proposal, compared to 44 percent who oppose it. Other surveys from Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University and PBS Newshour released in recent weeks found even higher support for such a program.
Some Democrats think the proposal is good politics for O’Rourke, and that it won’t hurt Democrats nationwide.
Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), argued that it would have little effect on Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2020, when the party is hoping to capture not only the White House but a Senate majority.
“[A mandatory buyback program] is where voters happen to be. Voters of both parties do not want or approve of having weapons of war on the streets, in Walmart, in their schools,” he said, adding that the pool of voters Democrats stand to lose from promoting such policies is relatively small.
“There are very few get-able, persuadable voters who are also single-issue gun voters,” Reinish said.
On Capitol Hill, however, Democrats have signaled they think O’Rourke’s proposal has made it tougher to get a deal on legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) dismissed the plan in a conference call with New York reporters this week, but said that it should not stop Democrats from moving forward on other measures.
“Beto’s one human being,” Manchin told reporters on Wednesday. “He gave his own opinion, okay? I think it was very harmful to make it look like all the Democrats. I can tell you one thing: Beto O’Rourke’s not taking my guns away from me. You tell Beto that, okay?”
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) said on CNN last week that he would support a “voluntary” buyback program, but praised O’Rourke for his candor on the issue.
Others have offered support for a mandatory confiscation program.
“I can only speak for myself and I liked what he had to say,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).
“I want to hear people say that we’re going to get the weapons of mass destruction off the streets and out of children’s hands,” she said, adding that “candidates should be talking about their different positions on assault weapons so voters can make the right decision.”
There’s no sign that O’Rourke is backing down from his call for a mandatory assault weapons buyback. At an outdoor town hall in Aurora, Colo., the site of a deadly 2012 mass shooting, on Thursday, he doubled down on his call for such a program.
“To these AK-47s and AR-15s — more than 15 million out there, every one of them a potential instrument of terror — we will buy back each and every single one,” he said.