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Beto O’Rourke focuses on guns after Uvalde, but faces familiar hurdles

The Texas Democrat has found himself again in a cycle that includes comforting families, attending funerals, calling for change at the ballot box and, so far, coming up short on Election Day

Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks at a town hall event in Dallas on June 1. (Laura Buckman for The Washington Post)
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DALLAS — Right after a 2018 mass shooting in Texas, then-Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke demanded “red flag laws” that enable authorities to seize weapons from those deemed dangerous and invited victims of the shooting to speak at his events.

Following another Texas mass shooting in 2019, O’Rourke, then a presidential candidate, amped up his response, saying on a debate stage: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.”

And since a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., last month, O’Rourke, now a gubernatorial candidate, has taken an even more aggressive tack — recently confronting Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who he is trying to unseat, during a briefing the day after the killings, addressing a protest outside a National Rifle Association meeting and holding a series of town halls on the issue.

Beto O’Rourke confronts Abbott in Uvalde: ‘You are doing nothing’

More than most Democratic politicians, O’Rourke has infused his campaigns with impassioned appeals to tighten gun laws in the aftermath of mass shootings — including two statewide runs in this conservative-leaning state where gun rights are sacrosanct. He’s found himself in a familiar cycle that includes comforting families, attending funerals, calling for change at the ballot box and, so far, coming up short on Election Day.

O’Rourke’s escalating responses to mass shootings reflect a broader trend of Democrats becoming more direct and confrontational as they call out policies and policymakers who block stricter gun laws.

But it’s far from clear such tactics will produce legislative or political victories this year, with partisan divisions in Congress and Democrats facing head winds in the November midterm elections in Texas and across the country. The scope of the challenge is evident here in Texas, where O’Rourke, whose tactics have been polarizing, is seeking to convince Republicans and moderates to change their views on an issue that’s long been intractable.

“It just was infuriating,” O’Rourke said in a Wednesday interview, recalling his impression of Abbott’s comments at the press briefing he decided to interrupt. “And I just knew right then if nothing changes this is going to happen again, and again and again and again.”

Aides to Abbott’s gubernatorial office and his campaign declined to comment for this story.

In recent days, O’Rourke refocused his campaign on guns, with his team scrambling on Memorial Day to organize a series of three town hall events across the state they are billing as meetings on “protecting Texas kids.”

The first was in Dallas on Wednesday night.

“Hundreds of kids have died just in this very community over the last few years while we treat it as a natural disaster, or an unfortunate storm has passed through our communities, as though we are powerless to do anything,” O’Rourke said, speaking to a crowd of about 600 who came to see him on a rainy evening at the Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center gymnasium.

He ticked through what his own children have done in recent days and asked the crowd to consider the pain of losing a child. “Please try to imagine what that would feel like for 19 families,” he said. “You’re here right now because it doesn’t happen to another family.”

As O’Rourke spoke, news broke about another deadly mass shooting at a hospital in Tulsa, less than five hours north of the town hall. It was a reminder of the rapid cadence of such killings, and some in the audience shouted out that another one had happened.

Public polls have shown Abbott leading O’Rourke and nonpartisan analysts regard the incumbent as the favorite in November. James Henson, a political scientist and the executive director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said shifting the focus of the gubernatorial campaign away from issues like inflation, border security and President Biden’s low approval ratings could benefit O’Rourke, though it is difficult to know how long public attention will remain on the Uvalde shooting.

“In cold political terms, the basic issue set strongly favors Governor Abbott,” Henson said. “For that to change, he would need some major disruptions in the status quo. The question is does this represent that?”

In some respects, O’Rourke is an unlikely figure in the gun-control movement, which frequently clashes with Republicans. During his six years in the U.S. House, he charted a moderate course, willing to buck his party on some issues from consumer protection to the environment. He voted with President Donald Trump about 30 percent of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, the political website. And he crossed the aisle to take a road trip from Washington to Texas with Will Hurd, who was then a GOP congressman from a nearby district.

But he won praise for his congressional record on guns when he ran for the Senate. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence endorsed him, citing his support for universal background checks and reinstating an assault weapons ban. He participated in a 2016 “sit in” in the House to push for gun-control measures following an Orlando massacre.

Still, he tries to hit bipartisan notes while campaigning on guns, careful to say that as governor of Texas he’d push for laws that he believes could attract some GOP support, including new rules about safely storing firearms and universal background checks. He also reiterates his belief that assault-style weapons should be banned, while acknowledging it may not be popular in Texas.

O’Rourke said in the interview that his connection to the issue is personal and that it intensified after the El Paso shooting where a man charged with killing 23 people in a Walmart in 2019 said he was targeting Mexicans, according to police.

“If I had come at this from a distance … would I have a different conclusion?” O’Rourke said Wednesday. “I don’t know.”

Guns are embedded in Texas culture. At the entrance to the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth sits a bronze sculpture by Frederic Remington of four boisterous cowboys, all with guns raised in their right hands. Across the street at a high-end boutique, handmade necklaces include some featuring bullet casings. At a grocery store an hour south, one man had a firearm strapped to his side as he loaded bags into a jeep.

Thirty-seven percent of Texans live in households with guns, according to an estimate by the Rand Corp., a rate that has declined from 60 percent in the early 1980s.

O’Rourke has demonstrated an ability to grab attention for causes that he supports. He put himself in the national spotlight in his 2018 Senate run when he defended NFL players kneeling in protest for racial justice during the national anthem.

But his unfiltered style doesn’t always work. He faced criticism for a Vanity Fair interview where he said he was “just born to be in it” when talking about the presidential race.

O’Rourke said in the interview that he had not planned to confront Abbott and interrupt a news conference last week where officials updated the public on what happened in Uvalde. The moment went viral and has already become divisive — a rallying cry for O’Rourke supporters and an irritant for some Republicans and independents who viewed it as distasteful.

O’Rourke said he drove from Houston to Uvalde after he learned about the shooting. The following day, as he was driving into Uvalde, an aide told him that Abbott was about to hold a news conference, he recalled.

“Let’s go there. Let’s hear what the guy has to say,” O’Rourke recounted saying as they decided to attend. He said he hoped for “strong words” from the governor. Instead, he recalled “hearing so many of the same things that I heard in El Paso,” referring to the aftermath of the mass shooting there.

After Abbott finished speaking, O’Rourke stood up and interrupted him. He was escorted out.

Republicans labeled the moment a stunt, with Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin (R) lashing out at him in the moment, calling him a “sick son of a b----” for disrupting the event.

“It was the wrong time and place to do that,” said Brendan Steinhauser, who has managed winning campaigns for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “He probably knows deep down that his rhetoric and behavior is not that popular.”

As a statewide candidate, the first big mass shooting that O’Rourke contended with was when a gunman killed eight students and two teachers in May 2018 at a school in Santa Fe, Tex., a town of about 13,000 that is southeast of Houston.

He got in touch with families of some victims, leaving his personal cellphone number in a voice mail to Rhonda Hart, who lost her 14 year-old girl Kimberly Vaughan in the shooting. “I’m available at your convenience,” O’Rourke said in the message, which Hart has saved for all these years. She gave O’Rourke a photo of her daughter, which he carries in his wallet.

He lost that year to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz by 2.6 percentage points, coming closer in a strong Democratic year than many had initially expected.

Another major shooting in El Paso hit particularly hard because it occurred in O’Rourke’s hometown, according to friends and aides.

“Beto and I have talked about it,” Hart said. “We have this connection. We’re both survivors. Because as far as I consider it, any town that experiences a mass shooting, that entire community is survivors. I don’t care who you are.”

He suspended his presidential campaign for nearly two weeks after the shooting, scratching events planned in Iowa. His advisers urged him to talk to the media, which he initially resisted believing he was politicizing the events, according to a former campaign aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the events. O’Rourke made frequent trips to the Walmart, and he visited victims in the hospital. His campaign had an office so close to the shooting that police locked it down during the shooting.

Though former aides say the event helped reignite his purpose for running, they believe the shooting, and his reaction to it, had little tangible impact on his presidential campaign, which gained little traction. He dropped out in November 2019, before a single primary vote was cast.

When he launched his gubernatorial bid, O’Rourke issued a video where he criticized Abbott’s failure during a massive power outage in the state and his refusal to expand Medicaid. But he also mentioned guns, labeling Abbott’s support for a permitless carry law as extreme.

If O’Rourke wins in November, he will be the first Democrat to prevail in a gubernatorial election in the state since 1990. Asked to imagine what a victory here would signal for the larger gun-control movement, he slipped into third person.

″He wins in spite of — or maybe because of — the fact that he’s willing to tell the truth on this,” O’Rourke said. Such a win could have consequences beyond the state’s borders, he added. “Look at Texas. Look at the outsized role we have on our country’s politics and policies.”

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