Republicans pounced Friday on former congressman Beto O’Rourke’s emphatic call during the Democratic debate for a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, using it to broadly paint the party as overly eager to confiscate firearms.
Vice President Pence echoed many Republicans during an address at a House GOP retreat in Baltimore, where he referenced O’Rourke’s comments from Thursday’s debate while arguing that Democrats are out of step with average Americans.
“They were talking about gun control, and not just gun control,” Pence said as he recounted the debate in Houston. “You had leading candidates for the highest office in the land talking about taking firearms away from law-abiding citizens. Well, the American people deserve to know this president, this vice president, and these House Republicans will always stand for the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”
O’Rourke had what many saw as a breakout moment Thursday when he spoke passionately about the need for gun control in the wake of recent mass shootings — including one in his hometown of El Paso — and advocated for a buyback program.
“Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47, and we’re not going to allow it to be used against your fellow Americans anymore,” the former congressman from Texas said.
O’Rourke emphasized Friday morning as he made the rounds on cable television shows that his buyback plan would be “not voluntary.”
“It is mandatory,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “It will be the law. You will be required to comply with the law.”
Some Democrats fretted, however, that O’Rourke had handed Republicans a campaign issue at a most unfortunate time: as they try to push President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republicans to adopt more modest reforms, such as expanding background checks for gun purchasers.
“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,’” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said during an appearance on CNN. “I’m a gun owner. My sons and I have gone skeet shooting and hunting, and, frankly, I don’t think having our presidential candidates, like congressman O’Rourke did, say that we’re going to try and take people’s guns against their will is wise either.”
“I don’t think a majority of the Senate or the country is going to embrace mandatory buybacks,” Coons added. “We need to focus on what we can get done.”
O’Rourke has been an outspoken proponent of stricter gun-control measures, including mandatory buybacks, in the wake of the Aug. 3 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, where the gunman was armed with an AK-style rifle and killed 22 people. But his forceful “hell yes” on Thursday night became one of the most memorable lines of the presidential debate and drew heightened attention to idea.
Speaking to reporters at the Baltimore retreat, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the House conference chairwoman, said talk of gun confiscation would “absolutely” motivate voters to cast ballots for Republicans.
“I think it’s absolutely clear that there’s one party here that absolutely will make sure that we are defending the Second Amendment, defending Americans’ constitutional rights, and there is another party — and you’ve seen it with the Democrats — who really have no care and no concern about the Second Amendment,” she said.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) weighed in as well, asserting that O’Rourke was “getting more desperate and more radical” by embracing mandatory buybacks of assault weapons.
“You know, the idea that he’s going to go and take people’s guns is a dangerous concept, and it shows he has a lack of understanding of the Second Amendment,” Scalise said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said O’Rourke’s embrace of mandatory buyback “shows the contrast” with Trump, whom he characterized as “a president who looks at a problem and tries to find a solution.”
McCarthy pointed to legislation signed by Trump last year to shore up reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and the administration’s move to ban bumpstocks, the rapid-fire gun attachments used to kill 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas in October 2017.
McCarthy said he expected Trump to come forward “quite soon” with a new package of measures developed in the wake of last month’s back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.
“He wants to gather all the information first and make sure whatever we move forward solves a problem so that none, none of this happens again,” McCarthy said.
In his television appearances on Friday, O’Rourke argued that his call for a mandatory buyback program would not imperil Democrats politically.
“It’s not a concern of mine, and that’s in part informed by listening to people in conservative parts of America and the southwestern part of Virginia,” he said on CNN.
O’Rourke recounted a visit to Bland County, Va., “as conservative as it might be, as proud a gun owner as they might be, they’re talking about this issue. And folks are saying, ‘Look, I would give up that AR-15 or that AK-47. I don’t need it to hunt, don’t need it to defend myself in my home.’ They recognize this is a weapon designed for war, to kill people as effectively, as efficiently, and in as great a number as possible.”
O’Rourke responded to Coons later Friday on Twitter.
“Much respect to Sen. Coons for leading the fight on background checks,” he wrote. “But the time for letting status quo politics determine how far we can go is over.”
Antonia Noori Farzan and Kayla Epstein contributed to this report.