WASHINGTON — Still mourning a Texas mass shooting, Democrat Beto O'Rourke gave his long-shot campaign a jolt by imploring a national audience that it was finally time for real action to curb the proliferation of high-powered guns in his home state and across America.
That was 2019, and the former congressman was running for president when he declared during a debate, “Hell, yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15,” weeks after a gunman targeting Mexican immigrants killed 23 people at a Walmart in O'Rourke's native El Paso.
Last week, following the massacre of 19 elementary school students and two teachers by an 18-year-old man with an AR-15-style rifle in Uvalde, Texas, O'Rourke — now campaigning for governor — again briefly seized the national political spotlight. This time, that meant crashing the news conference of the man he wants to unseat, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, and declaring — in a moment subsequently viewed widely online — that the carnage was "on you.”
O'Rourke is betting that the tragedy can reset the governor’s race in America’s largest red state — despite Abbott twice previously winning election by landslides and having begun the campaign with $55 million in the bank and despite gun culture looming larger in Texas than perhaps anywhere else.
It didn’t work in 2019. O’Rourke’s debate declaration won him praise from other Democrats on stage and a fundraising bump. But he dropped out of the race barely six weeks later.
It’s too early to tell what will happen in the governor's race, but the shooting has already affected both parties. Abbott canceled his planned visit to the annual National Rifle Association meeting to remain in Uvalde. Also skipping it was Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who is among those negotiating with Democratic colleagues on strengthening background checks and “red flag” laws allowing authorities to remove firearms from those determined to be a danger to themselves or others.
“I think it felt cathartic for a lot of people that maybe might have been on the fence,” said Abel Prado, executive director of the Democratic advocacy group Cambio Texas. “It gives you, ‘At least somebody’s trying to stand up and do something, or at least say something.’”
O'Rourke spent two nights in Uvalde after the shooting, then headed to Houston for a rally against gun violence outside Friday's meeting of the NRA.
“To those men and women in positions of power who care more about your power than using that power to save the lives of those that you are supposed to serve .... we will defeat you and we will overcome you,” O'Rourke told protesters who chanted his name and the phrase "Vote them out!
Supporters hope O’Rourke recaptures the magic that saw him become a national Democratic star and nearly upset Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. But since then, O'Rourke's White House bid fizzled, former President Donald Trump easily won Texas in 2020 and Democrats who had hoped to flip scores of congressional and legislative seats in the state that year lost nearly every top race.
A Democrat also hasn't won Texas' governorship since 1990, and, just last year, the state loosened firearm restrictions enough to allow virtually any resident age 21 and older to carry guns without a license. Abbott signed that law alongside NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and the group’s president, Carolyn Meadows.
Of course, the domination of guns in Texas culture has long predated the law. Abbott once tweeted his embarrassment at his state lagging California in gun sales, and Cruz is fond of saying, “Give me a horse, a gun and an open plain, and we can conquer the world.” Former Republican Gov. Rick Perry cruised to reelection in 2010 after using a laser-sighted handgun to kill a coyote while jogging.
Mass shootings are similarly not new in Texas. Tuesday’s massacre in Uvalde and the El Paso killings followed a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston that killed eight students and two teachers in 2018, and a church rampage in Sutherland Springs that left 25 people dead, as well as an unborn child, the year before.
Former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Republican long famous for carrying multiple guns nearly everywhere he went, said O’Rourke’s most ardent supporters will be “even more determined to vote for Beto" after his confrontation with Abbott.
Still Patterson said the clash could backfire, alienating otherwise potentially sympathetic swing voters who might think O'Rourke was putting on a self-serving show.
“Sometimes your method overwhelms your message, and his method gutted whatever benefit he might have accrued,” said Patterson, who, as a state senator, wrote Texas’ original, 1995 concealed handgun law allowing Texans to take firearms more places than nearly anywhere in America at the time. “I think it's a net loss.”
Abbott hasn't mentioned O'Rourke much since the shooting but answered questions about possible new state gun limits by slamming high crime rates in cities primarily run by Democrats.
“There are more people shot every weekend in Chicago than there are in schools in Texas,” the governor said hyperbolically. Speaking of arguments that new firearms restrictions could make Americans safer, “Chicago and LA and New York disprove that thesis.”
Abbott's campaign has also previously chided O’Rourke for his previous stand on guns, producing an online ad last year showing a cartoon of O’Rourke speeding the wrong direction down a one-way street, then off a cliff while the radio plays clips of his “Hell yes” comment and other strongly progressive positions he took as a presidential candidate.
O’Rourke’s campaign insists he's not using the massacre for political gain. It transformed its fundraising apparatus into one accepting donations for relatives of those killed in Uvalde, and says O'Rourke attended the Abbott news conference at the urging of one of the victims’ families.
He sat quietly in the audience for 10-plus minutes, intending only to listen, the campaign said. But, when Abbott said “there was no meaningful forewarning of this crime” other than the gunman posting about the shooting just moments before he began doing so, O'Rourke got angry — especially given that, after the El Paso shooting, the state’s chief response was to loosen gun laws. He approached the stage and accused Abbott of “doing nothing” when the the Uvalde violence had been “totally predictable.”
Also on stage was Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, who responded with an obscenity and called O'Rourke “sick” for trying to make the shooing “a political issue.”
But it nonetheless helped one Texan change her mind. Nicole Armijo, who works in her family's HVAC business in the border city of McAllen and has three kids, ages 10, 9 and 6, attending public school. She didn't vote for O'Rourke when he ran for Senate but plans to now because “the way we're doing things is not working.”
“Maybe, Texas, it’s not just about having a gun," said Armijo, who said she loves guns and hunting but would support expanded background checks. “Beto's kind of portrayed those thoughts: It's not about me or you. It's about everyone as a whole."